12:00pm

Fri February 4, 2011
Africa

Women Play Vital Role In Egypt's Uprising

Originally published on Fri February 4, 2011 11:43 am

Transcript

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

We have our Friday features in Faith Matters. We'll talk about the national prayer breakfast, which was held this week, where President Obama got surprisingly personal about his faith. We'll talk more about that a little later.

But, first, in our political chat, we go back to Egypt and we are asking, what about the women? In this huge anti-government demonstration, some say it all started with this.

(Soundbite of YouTube video)

Unidentified Woman: (Speaking foreign language)

MARTIN: This is an Egyptian woman seen in a YouTube video: Don't be afraid of the government, we need to fight for our country.

Protestors galvanized after that video appeared. And since then they have secured President Hosni Mubarak's promise to step down after his current term in office ends this fall.

But many of the protestors want him out now and reportedly are planning what some are calling resistance week next week if Mubarak does not step aside soon. We wanted to talk more about the role that women are playing and could be playing in the Egypt of the future.

So we're turning now to Mona Eltahawy. She is an Egyptian-born journalist. She's reported in her home country for Reuters and around the Middle East and China for other news outlets. We're reaching her today in Los Angeles. Mona, thanks so much for joining us once again.

Ms. MONA ELTAHAWY (Journalist): Hi, Michel, thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Now, I wanted to ask what role do you see women playing in the street protests that we've been seeing all week. Now, I do want to mention that communications with Egypt have been severely disrupted off and on. They are again today. So we are not getting live pictures today. But previously we had been seeing a lot of women, you know, out on the streets. Does that comport with your understanding and do you think that that's unusual?

Ms. ELTAHAWY: Indeed, Michel, it does comport with my understanding because I follow many women activists. I've been friends with them and I followed them on Tweeter and other social media for a while now. And many of them are spending the night in Tahrir Square. Others have been taking part in democracy rallies across Egypt and this doesn't surprise me in the least, especially among the young.

I mean, that video you played at the beginning by Asmaa Mahfouz, many young women are involved in youth movements that have used - have embraced social media to cause a change and to express themselves. So, you see, many of the young people involved in the pro democracy rallies are women indeed.

And even in the older generation, I have a friend who - an Egyptian who lived in Denmark. A woman who flew back to Egypt just a couple of days ago, she's a physician, and she's currently, as we speak, tending to the wounded in a makeshift clinic in Tahrir Square.

There are other women who have been either more vocal through social media to get the word out for the demonstrations, or have been prior to the demonstrations, kind of leading up to it, launching women's rights groups that advise women on things like sexual harassment and their rights vis-a-vis the law. Or even just launching groups about social awareness generally.

So, to look ahead and to see how this can translate into, you know, a post-Mubarak Egypt, it gives me a lot of hope because it tells me that these young women are determined to be a part of civil society in their country. And this isn't unusual at all for Egypt because back in the 1919 revolution, in the last century, women were very involved.

Our feminist movement in Egypt was launched in 1923 when an Egyptian women called Huda Sha'rawi removed her face veil on a Cairo train station and said, this is a thing of the past. So, you know, this is all in keeping with the history that we're very proud of in Egypt.

MARTIN: You know, you also forwarded some of the tweets that you've been receiving to us. And one of the things that you noted was that some of the women are giving advice to other women about how to proceed. Like, wear two layers of clothing, wear two headscarves if you wear a headscarf because people are sure to try to attack you.

So, you want to ask, do you think that women are being targeted? You see now where the pro-Mubarak forces have moved in. You see them kind of flailing away at everybody. Do you think women are particularly at risk now that the demonstrations have in some cases turned ugly?

Ms. ELTAHAWY: You know, I mentioned that Egyptian women have a long and proud history of taking part in rallies and demonstrations. Unfortunately, over the past five or six years, the Mubarak regime has been using thugs and security forces to target women specifically by groping, by sexual assaults and we saw this especially in 2005, which was, you know, is noted as a year of kind of massive dynamic social movement in Egypt where women were - I myself, I mean, during - while I was covering the trial of Ayman Nour, I went to the sentencing. Many journalists were prevented from going in and I was groped by a police officer. So, and that's just the least of it.

Many other women have experienced much more horrendous attacks. So it was very saddening, but also gratifying that these young women were prepared. Because in the days leading up to the January 25th protest, which sparked this uprising, they were sending out tweets and sending out links to websites that, as you said, advised women on how best to protect themselves against these sexual assaults by the security forces and thugs.

And they would say things like, wear two layers of clothes so that if they rip off the first, you know, you're still dressed. Don't wear anything with a zipper. Carry a can of mace. If you wear a headscarf, you know, make sure you tie it this way and not that way and wear two. So, you know, they were determined because what the purpose of these sexual assaults and targeting women, obviously is to shame these women and to terrorize them.

And so this said to me that these young women were saying, we will not be scared away. We are standing up for our rights to be active and equal members of Egyptian society, which, again, gives me hope looking forward. Because essentially what this uprising, what this revolution in Egypt is about is young people, but obviously the entire country because it's not just young people.

But a generation of Egyptians that have known no other leader than Hosni Mubarak, who's been in power for 30 years, telling him, we want freedom and democracy.

MARTIN: And I should mention that we've reached Mona Eltahawy, Egyptian journalist, we've reached her in her hotel room in Los Angeles, where she's currently traveling. If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. And Mona and I are talking about the role that women are playing in the street protests in Egypt.

Mona, going forward, though, there's been a lot of discussion about the potential role that the Muslim Brotherhood might play in the governance of Egypt in the future. And I wanted to ask, are the women who are now participating in these protests, seeking the end of the Mubarak regime, are they concerned at all about what might happen next?

We're starting now to hear in the United States, for example, concern that as bad as Mubarak might be, a dictator, though, he may be - strongman, though, he may be, there are concerns now about what could follow him if the situation continues to continue on the present course. So, is that concern among the women activists with whom you are speaking that one form of restricted life could be followed by another form of restricted public life?

Ms. ELTAHAWY: Right. You know, for the longest time, Hosni Mubarak has justified his being a dictator, basically the only ruler of Egypt for 30 years by saying, by using this alarmist tone. By saying, it's either me or the Islamists and so his Western allies, including five U.S. presidents have always chosen him.

In Egypt, you know, people recognize that the Muslim Brotherhood do represent some Egyptians. You know, if we had free and fair elections in Egypt, it's estimated they would get between 20 percent to 35 percent.

So, you know, there is no doubt that they are part of Egyptian society. And I know that during these rallies, this mass uprising against the Mubarak regime, has included Muslim Brotherhood supporters, men and women, because I know young women who also belong to the Muslim Brotherhood.

What this unprecedented mass uprising says to me is that Egyptians have basically served notice to Mubarak, but also any future leader of their country, that if they try to rule them with dictatorship and with repression, Egyptians have now understood their power and the power of the people to go out on the street and say no to a dictator. So I have no doubt whatsoever that Egyptian men and women will not allow for one form of repressive regime to be replaced with another.

MARTIN: What makes you so sure of that? I mean, Afghanistan, obviously, is a very different country in a very different circumstance. But one of the issues in Afghanistan now is that the people there seemed to be caught between, you know, a government which is more friendly to the West, but which many people deride as utterly corrupt. And then restrictionist, you know, restrictionist Islamic fundamentalist leadership, which also would circumscribe the role of women in public life.

Ms. ELTAHAWY: Yes.

MARTIN: So, what makes you so sure that you can't put that genie back in the bottle?

Ms. ELTAHAWY: Because what I'm hearing from Egypt now about this committee that is being formed to help Egypt move beyond Mubarak towards free and fair elections. We need an interim government that is going to basically oversee this transition period. And this interim committee that is being formed includes 10 members and only one of them is from the Muslim Brotherhood.

And they're also talking, and I think it's absolutely essential that they must have youth representation because it was the young people who launched this uprising. So, young women like the one who filmed the vblog that you started with and others must also be included.

So that says to me that what is happening in Egypt now is people have recognized that Mubarak has consistently suppressed any kind of legitimate opposition to him and has left only opposition that comes out of the mosque, in other words, the Muslim Brotherhood.

So, in putting together this committee that represents a variety of political backgrounds, I'm seeing that Egyptians are moving beyond what's happening in Afghanistan, what's happening in Egypt, what's happening in many Muslim majority countries where the people are given just two choices: the dictator or a repressive Islamic regime that would act like a dictator that says I have God on my side. And nobody wants that.

MARTIN: And, finally, Mona, can you just tell us, in about the minute and a half that we have left, are there some names that we should be on the lookout for. Are there names of women in public life, perhaps legislators or public intellectuals who might play a significant role in the next phase of Egyptian civic life if things continue on their present course?

Obviously, we don't know that this is the story, which is very much in flux and we don't know, but we do know that Mubarak has pledged not to run for another term.

Ms. ELTAHAWY: Right.

MARTIN: So, are there some names of people who we should be on the lookout for?

Ms. ELTAHAWY: Absolutely. I mean, I'll start with the young because they're the ones who truly give me hope. So, there's Asmaa Mahfouz, the one who you started the segment with. There's a young woman called Israa Abdel Fattah, who has been going on television on a regular basis talking about how they will not negotiate with anyone until Mubarak goes.

There's a very well-known human rights activist and physician called Dr. Aida Seif El Dawla, who runs a wonderful center for the rehabilitation of victims of torture and violence. There are wonderful young women who run a center called Nazra, which means a vision. One woman called Mozn Hassan, another called Fatma Emam. There are many women in Egypt who I believe will play a central role in their country as they move forward.

(Soundbite of phone ringing)

MARTIN: We see there are many who have a demand for your insights, Mona. Mona Eltahawy is a columnist, a journalist, Egyptian-born. She's worked for Reuters and other news outlets in Egypt and throughout the Middle East and China. And she was with us now. We reached her in Los Angeles. Mona, thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. ELTAHAWY: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.