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Egypt 2011: women at the heart of the struggle

Melissa Graham

March 1, 2012

The leadership of women is sometimes left out of Egypt’s revolutionary history, yet without women the events that unfolded would have been far less powerful.

The 2011 revolution would not have happened without the 2006 mass strike in Mahalla, started and led by women. Angered by the high cost of food, women began to strike, and chanted, “Where are the men? Here are the women,” until the men were shamed into joining them. After three days, the workers won. The strike eventually led to a nationwide call for work stoppage in April 2008—which sparked the April 6 Youth Movement, whose leader Asma Mahfouz made the famous viral video that called on people to take to Tahrir Square on January 25, 2011. (continues below)

Tahrir Square

Women have been central to the repeated occupations of Tahrir Square, from battles with police, treating the injured in makeshift hospitals, and providing security and communication. Women have also been central to strikes pushing the revolution forward—like Dr. Mona Mina, leader of Doctor Without Rights.

Women and men fighting alongside each other began to challenge sexist ideas as well. According to one activist, “discrimination against women and sexual harassment has been entrenched in mainstream Egyptian culture. It’s treated as a joke. Everywhere we go we face verbal harassment… But from the beginning of the revolution, and throughout the 18 days I spent in Tahrir Square, I did not face sexual harassment once.”

Women’s Day

As a result, the Egyptian Revolution has raised demands for women’s liberation. During last year’s International Women’s Day, a thousand women and men rallied in Tahrir, demanding government-funded childcare and an end to workplace discrimination.

As a consequence of the centrality of women to the revolution, the regime has lashed out against them—breaking up the IWD protest last year, imposing virginity tests on women protesters, and brutally attacking others last December. But in response, 10,000 women and men marched in Cairo against police brutality.

Perhaps there’s another reason for hiding this story: imagine what would happen to the ruling class if women everywhere followed the example of the women of Egypt.

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