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Women and the Egyptian revolution

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The year 2011 is ending as it began: with images of thousands of Egyptian women and men standing up against a Western-backed military regime -- from a 10,000-strong march of women two days ago, to another mass Friday march today. These make it clear that the Egyptian revolution is ongoing, and that women continue to play a central role.

The Western media are used to depicting Arab and Muslim women as passive victims in need of forced liberation (justifying the war in Afghanistan). While the Egyptian revolution busted this and other myths, the New York Times was still puzzled by the active participation of women against the regime -- and claimed they have been otherwise peripheral to the political process. While official political structures have excluded women, they have been at the heart of the revolutionary process -- from the movements leading up to the January uprising, to the strikes and protests that have kept it going.

Prelude to revolution

As prominent Egyptian socialist Gigi Ibrahim explained in a talk last March, the Egyptian revolution began after a decade of struggles for Palestine solidarity, civil liberties, and economic justice. In December 2006, women textile workers began a strike in Mahalla:

"Some 3,000 women garment workers stormed into the main spinning and weaving sheds and demanded that their male colleagues stop work. 'Where are the men? Here are the women!' they chanted. Then 10,000 workers gathered in the factory courtyard and once again women were at the forefront."

This built the unity and confidence of women and men to challenge the regime, and triggered a wave of strikes over the next few years leading up to the revolution. It also produced a solidarity movements like the April 6 Youth Movement co-founded by Asmaa Mahfouz.


On January 25, Asmaa Mahfouz released a video that went viral, calling on people to go to Tahrir against the regime. Women were central to the uprising, leading chants and confronting riot police.

Through the process of women and men uniting to change the world, they also changed themselves. Long-time feminist activist Nawal el-Saadawi described the mood inside Tahrir Square during the 18 days that toppled Mubarak:

"All the differences between Egyptians evaporated because of the revolution. Muslims and Christians were together, women and men were together. There was equality between all. The revolution washed away all the discriminations that was forced on us by the regime."

Socioeconomic demands

The January uprising not only toppled Mubarak but unearthed an accumulation of grievances, including women's rights, and the people of Egypt have continued the revolution for socioeconomic change. On International Women's Day there was a mass rally in Tahrir Square demanding women's rights:

"Women workers are demanding an end to discrimination in hiring and promotions, and want government-funded child care… On March 8, International Women's Day, some 1,000 women and their male supporters rallied in Cairo to demand, among other things, that women be allowed to run for president and become judges."

Women are also playing an important role in the workers movement, whose mass strikes were key to toppling Mubarak and remain central to challenging the military dictatorship. Dr. Mona Mina, a longtime activist and member of Doctors Without Rights, helped organize a national doctors' strike in May -- demanding higher wages for all workers and increased funding for health care -- and was recently elected to the leadership of the union, in an election that challenged the Muslim Brotherhood.

As socialist Hossam El-Hamalawy explained, the Brotherhood are not a homogeneous reactionary block as portrayed in the media. Their leadership support neo-liberalism and have tried to call off strikes and demonstrations, but much of the youth of their membership have been part of the revolution and can be won to more progressive politics. When the regime and its allies attacked the Revolutionary Socialists, numerous groups came to their defence.

Exposing and challenging the regime

Just six months ago when I had to chance to visit Egypt, there was widespread support for the military and a belief that "the people and the army are one," though some of the radical street art challenged this notion. But faced with ongoing strikes and demonstrations pushing the revolution forward, the military has lashed out at the strengths of the revolution -- banning strikes, burning a Coptic Church in an attempt to provoke sectarian divisions, and attacking women -- including forced virginity tests under threats of electrocution earlier in the year. As this video from The Real News show, there has been brutal crackdowns by the military regime every month since the toppling of Mubarak. The regime is a key pillar of U.S. control of the region, so the U.S. has continued to supply it with weapons, and it's only because of the recent international outcry and mass mobilization of women that Hilary Clinton claimed to have been "shocked" by the recent brutal beatings.

But the march of women and the demonstration today show these attacks have only increased the determination of ordinary Egyptian women and men to unite and fight for a better world -- of democracy, economic justice, and women's liberation.

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