Far from being ‘stable', Egypt is a country of multiple fissures as the current uprising shows…

The world has been transfixed by the developments in Egypt. Out of nothing, it seemed, an uprising of unbelievable proportions has emerged. Women and men, young and old, rich and poor, have all been heard saying the same thing — we want an end to three decades of repression, we want a change. It is as if the steam has been let off from a pressure cooker. There is clearly no going back.

Much of the world saw Egypt as a ‘stable' country in West Asia. For Western nations, it was their most faithful ally. But for Egyptians, the story has been vastly different. For them, Egypt's real face was that of increasing poverty and disparity, of unaccounted riches by the few, of the denial of human rights, of police brutality.

At the time of writing (February 1), it was unclear how this will end. Can this apparently leaderless upsurge lead to a peaceful change? Will the people who lead be able to meet the heightened expectations of millions of people in this most populous Arab country?

Change is here

Whatever the final outcome, the events beginning January 25 have forced the world to look again at Egypt and at Egyptians. We cannot fail to notice the fearlessness of men, as well as women. Within what appears to be a sea of men, you see the women, old and young, conservative and modern — and fearless. Yes, the women are there, but sometimes you have to look closely. One of the most striking images doing the rounds on the Internet is that of an elderly woman kissing a rather startled policeman, dressed in full riot gear.

Egyptian women are as vociferous and as articulate as the men even if the media sometimes fails to make the effort to seek out their voices. Thanks to the Internet, we have heard the voices of so many women in the last week, voices that spoke out strongly against emergency laws, against police brutality. These women were not afraid to state their names nor did they mince words.

Truthful portrayal

An Egyptian woman who first gave me an idea of the real situation within Egypt was the remarkable writer, Dr. Nawal El Sadaawi. Her book Woman at Point Zero, about Firdaus, a woman condemned to death for having killed her pimp, is one of the most gripping and moving books I have read. Dr. Sadaawi, a professional psychiatrist, met Firdaus in the notorious Qanatir Women's Prison in the mid-1970s. She narrates Firdaus' story of violence and abuse. But the book also gives us an insight into the life of millions of Egyptians, particularly women, living in conservative rural societies.

Less than a decade later, Dr. Sadaawi was incarcerated in the same prison for her political views and her trenchant opposition to the treatment of women, especially the practice of female genital mutilation. Such criticism was deemed a ‘crime against the State' and over one thousand intellectuals like Dr. Sadaawi were thrown into prison by the government of Anwar Sadat in September 1981. Her experiences in prison are captured in Memoirs from the Women's Prison, which she wrote on the basis of notes written with the help of a “stubby black eyebrow pencil” and “a small roll of old and tattered toilet paper”.

After her release from prison, she wrote: “Danger has been a part of my life ever since I picked up a pen and wrote. Nothing is more perilous than truth in a world that lies.”

The repression did not end when Sadat was shot and the present incumbent, Hosni Mubarak took over. Women like Dr. Sadaawi have continued to face problems from the State and from conservative elements, some of whom have functioned under State protection. At one point Dr. Sadaawi chose to leave Egypt and live in exile. Even after she returned, the attacks on her continued.

Looking at the life of just one person like Nawal El Sadaawi gives us an idea of life in Egypt for people who question, who speak out. In fact, the women of Egypt have a long tradition of resistance. They were equal partners with the men who fought against colonial rule. There are newspaper reports from 1919, when Egypt faced political turmoil, that sound almost as if they are describing the scenes on the streets of Cairo — of women of all classes coming out to demonstrate against British rule.

Yet, as Nemat Guenena and Nadia Wassef write in their monograph, Unfulfilled Promises, Women's Rights in Egypt (published by the Population Council, 1999), “it has been noted that women's liberation has never come to assume the primacy of political or economic liberation. Women's particular concerns have been, and continue to be, subordinate to those of society, the nation, and development. Also, Egyptian men like their counterparts in the West have resisted the process of redefining gender roles and allowing women more equality.” Sounds familiar, does it not?

Token gestures

In many ways, Egypt represents the typical contradiction seen in many countries where governments accommodate some changes but essentially deny people the right to question. Thus, some progressive changes were made in laws that affect women, but many more were denied. And statistics, such as the gap between male and female literacy, the increasing incidence of violence against women, the continued practice of female genital mutilation that continues to have cultural acceptance, high maternal mortality and low political participation — only eight out of 454 seats in the current Parliament are occupied by women — reveal the real status of women.

At the moment, the specific concerns of women, or of the poor, will be subsumed under the over-arching demand for a regime change. But in the end, whatever the shape and form of a new government, these basic issues will have to be addressed. One can only hope that the voices of the courageous women and men that are being heard around the world today will not be muzzled.

Email the writer: sharma.kalpana@yahoo.com