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The Women of Tahir Square

Any woman who has spent time in Arab countries was likely to have been particularly impressed by the strong presence of women in the Egypt’s Tahrir Square protests. Whether it is Cairo or any other Arab city, walking around unaccompanied in public is not always a comfortable experience.

But the spirit of fellowship and common cause seemed to have united those who gathered to throw off the reigns of Hosni Mubarak’s regime. And the diverse array of women in the square not only looked as if they were at home, they appeared to be at the center of the action. An Indian television station took a close half-hour look at the women of the Egyptian revolution in a short documentary called “The Women of Tahrir Square.”

The film brings the camera into the crowds, capturing pictures of women of all ages, from teens to mothers with children and babies, from those tented in long black robes, to those wearing colorful headscarves to those in thoroughly modern Western attire. The monitors in charge of checking those who entered the square for weapons were women.

The documentary also features in-depth interviews with a few women taking active roles in the movement and asking them some probing questions about what life will be like for women in the new Egypt. Ahdaf Souief, a prominent novelist firmly rejects the “doomsday notion” that the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak will lead to increased power in the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood, and that the Brotherhood would then push for sharia-based law and increased restrictions on women. Souief said:

We will take our chances. We are really tired of people from outside telling us how to live our lives and organize our society. Women are a part of every social movement that happens in Egypt, or in the Muslim world. There is this portrayal of Egyptian women, of Arab women, as miserable, downtrodden, or whatever. A great many of the Western media outlets have come to us with specific questions of what will happen to women’s rights if this movement succeeds. We say things can only get better.

Indeed, there is an argument to be made that despite its modern face, Egypt under Mubarak has not been an ideal society for women. The difficult economic situation has weighed on women’s lives, women’s rights organizations, like all other political organizations have been as rigidly controlled by the state, and the rate of female political participation has been extremely low. So throwing off the Mubarak regime feels liberating for Egyptian women, with an accompanying sense of empowerment stemming from their active role in the revolution and the unique atmosphere in Tahrir Square. Sarah Topol, reporting for Slate from the Square noted:

Egypt has a sexual harassment problem. In a 2008 study, 86 percent of women said they had been harassed on Egypt’s streets—any woman walking through a crowd of men in Egypt braces to get groped. But in the square, crammed in shoulder-to-shoulder, men apologized if they so much as bumped into you. After wandering around the protests for days, it suddenly dawned on me that I hadn’t been groped, a constant annoyance when I’m faced with large crowds in Cairo. When I pointed this out to other women in the square, we all took a moment to reflect. “I hadn’t even thought of that,” one woman in Tahrir told me. “But it’s because we’re all so focused on one goal, we’re a family here.”

Will the euphoria last? Skeptics would be quick to point out that women were equally as active and visible in the anti-Shah Iranian revolution in 1979. They were inspired, in part, by their dreams of democracy, equality and economic justice — only to see those hopes crushed by the hard-line regime of the Ayatollahs.

Here’s hoping the story of the brave Egyptian women of Tahrir Square has a much happier ending.

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