Taking It to the Streets: Egyptian Women Protest the Government Alongside the Men Yet Few Images of Women


Cross-posted at A Safe World for Women.

As I’m sure you all know, Egypt has erupted in civil unrest a civil uprising.  The largest anti-government protest in Egypt in 30 years, civilians are protesting President Mubarak’s regime, calling for his resignation.  People have poured into the streets demonstrating, incited by skyrocketing inflation and severe lack of jobs.  The world is watching, waiting to see how events unfold.  I’ve been scouring the live updates on Mother Jones’ website (a phenomenal source of information to get you up to speed on the protests) and glued to the live stream of Al Jazeera English, the Arabic language news network.  While I’ve been watching for the past few days, almost all of the images have been of men in protest.  I’ve been wondering, where are the women?

At Double X, Jenna Krajeski writes about the numerous women playing a pivotal role in the protests:

“An unprecedented number of Egyptian women participated in Tuesday’s anti-government protests. Ghada Shahbandar, an activist with the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, estimated the crowd downtown to be 20 percent female. Other estimates were as high as 50 percent. In past protests, the female presence would rarely rise to 10 percent.”

So if 20-50% of women are protesting, why aren’t we seeing that reflected in the images shown on the news websites and networks?  Where the hell are those images??  On Facebook, Leil-Zahra Mortada has been compiling photos in an album called the “Women of Egypt,” chronicling women protesting in Egypt.

What accounts for the high number of women getting involved?  Krajeski writes,

“The Facebook-initiated groups are unaffiliated with a major opposition group. These protests also seemed safer. Organizers urged those attending to make it a peaceful one, and this became a rallying cry in some areas of the city on Tuesday. Moreover, Egypt’s educated youth, men and women, were fed up with a government that had not changed at all in most of their lifetimes, and which cuts even the educated off from any opportunity. And then there was Tunisia. Suddenly, attending the protest seemed not only worth the risk, but capable of inciting real change.”

Just as women are vital to protests, they’re also crucial in the media as commentators or in political discussions.  As Lucinda Marshall, blogger at Feminist Peace Network points out, when Obama talked with advisors, there were no women, not even Hillary Clinton, in the room.  Marshall also points out that on ABC News, Diane Sawyer, Martha Radditz and Christiane Amanpour dissected and discussed the events in Egypt, with no men on the panel:

“Martha Radditz and Christiane Amanpour talking about Egypt with Diane Sawyer on ABC–three women talking about a serious international news story, no men in the room–ten years ago that wouldn’t have happened.”

While policy makers enact laws and treaties, political pundits and reporters shape public opinion.  It’s crucial to have women in that conversation, just as it’s important to have people of color weigh in.  It’s also important that we try to hear as much as possible from Egyptians and Arabs themselves; one of the reasons I prefer to watch Al Jazeera.

Egyptian women have a long history of protesting, for at least a century as women protested during the Egyptian Revolution of 1919.  Egypt recently made strides towards gender equity (at least appearing to).  In 2009, Egypt passed a law reserving 64 Parliamentary seats for women, an increase of 1500%. And while not a panacea for women’s rights, it’s an important step.  A more recent example of protesting, in February last year, women and activists in Egypt demonstrated when judges declared that women were not allowed to serve as judges in the Council of State, “an influential court which advises Egypt’s government.”  Women have long advocated for their rights.

People often overlook women in protests or wars, as if they are absent or invisible.  Yet women protest, and sometimes fight in combat, alongside men.  In many conflicts (and in post-conflict countries too), rape against women is often utilized as a “weapon of war.”  But we rarely hear those stories on the nightly news.  In the Iranian Revolution in 2009, many women protested, including of course the young woman Neda who was shot and killed as she was on her way to a demonstration, becoming a martyr for anti-government opposition.  The protests in Egypt are also not without peril.  According to Bikya Masr,

“In the past 24 hours at least 100 Egyptians have been reported to have been killed across the country. The rising death toll is not expected to remain stagnant as more reports are coming in. At least 1000 people, and possibly more, have been injured in the five days of demonstrations that began on January 25.”

Protests have not just arisen in Cairo but throughout cities and towns in Egypt.  Al Jazeera, reporting on protests in Alexandria on 1/30 at 12:18pm EST, said that women in the city of Alexandria were headed to the streets, participating in the protests.  Interestingly, many of the banners and signs were written in English, not just addressing Mubarak’s regime but also foreign press and Western leaders.  Today, Al Jazeera showed images of protesters, many including women.

Democracy Now spoke with Nawal El Saadawi, an Egyptian feminist and human rights activist, who discussed women protesting alongside the men.  She declared,

“Women and girls are, beside the boys, are in the streets. We are calling for justice, freedom and equality, and real democracy, and a new constitution where there is no discrimination between men and women, no discrimination between Muslim and Christians, to change the system and to have real democracy.”

Night after night, women and men have defied the government imposed curfew in Cairo, gathering in Tahrir Square, aka Liberation Square.  A “Million Person March” towards the presidential palace is planned for tomorrow and a nationwide strike planned for Wednesday.  Egyptian civilians say they won’t stop protesting until President Mubarak steps down from office.  And women in Egypt will be advocating for justice too.  But when the media doesn’t show images of women involved, it appears as if they aren’t entrenched in rallying revolutions; they are written out of history.  Women don’t merely sit on the sidelines, having their husbands, brothers, fathers and sons wage battle for them.  Women confront corruption, fighting for freedom for their country and themselves.

Women and men in Egypt protesting side by side

15 thoughts on “Taking It to the Streets: Egyptian Women Protest the Government Alongside the Men Yet Few Images of Women

  1. My dear Megan,

    I could not agree more with you, I even sent a letter to the NYT why its pictures and article coverage did not reflect this fact. And of course no response. Perhaps we should do something.



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  4. Thanks for this Megan,

    I have been watching the images on TV and wondering where the women are in all this – and well done to Manisha for contacting the NYT on this issue.

    I have linked to your blog on my site, as has Global Voices.. It’s good to pull all these images and blog posts together.


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  7. Thank you, Everyone, for your comments! @Manisha, I’m SO glad you wrote to the NY Times…good for you! @Julie, thank you, that was so kind of you to post a link to my blog.

    While more posts and news articles have been published regarding women protesting in the revolutions, they are still not nearly as visible. I recently wrote a magazine article about the protests in North Africa. Just as they were missing from many accounts in Tunisia and Egypt, despite women protesting in Libya, sadly they are absent from those narratives as well. I’m so tired of the media attempting to write women out of history.

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