Saturday, March 19, 2011

Why Women's Rights in Egypt Are Important, and NOT Just for Women

Egyptians are recovering their freedom after long periods of living without it. Immense joy resulting from this is accompanied by no less immense challenges. Among these challenges are understanding what freedoms we are reclaiming and knowing what freedoms we were deprived of for so many years. The answers to these questions may sound obvious, and some of them are. Some of them however, are anything but obvious.

Break an old elephant's chain and he will remain in his place.

Shaking old habits can be a tall order. Egyptians have lived under a certain paradigm for many years. This paradigm is that of an authoritative, patriarchal leader. A leader who could do no wrong, who was not to be questioned, under penalty of punishment. A leader whose abuses always had some kind of a good justification.

Unbeknownst to themselves, many Egyptian men have learned to reproduce this paradigm at their level. This is not to say they were as abusive as the regime, or that they bore their family or surroundings any ill intentions. They just did what humans do best: they adapted to their environment. Most did so with the best intentions, and worked hard to feed their families and helped themselves and those around them to survive.

As Egyptian men, they were figures of authority in their environments, bowing only to other male figures of authority. They made the rules, and women did not. The law came from men. Big decisions came from men. Selective use of aspects of culture and religion served as powerful safeguards against any challenge to this state of affairs. A man was entitled, even duty-bound to be the law or to represent it. This role involved living with certain pressures, but these brought with them a certain sense of entitlement. One that may not be easy to let go of. One that may stand in the way of change.

So in a way, men have become enslaved to their own "privileges". It is clear then, that embracing significant change may involve far more than overthrowing a dictator. It may involve deep soul-searching and facing questions we have not been taught to face. As they became part of the system, as they inadvertently became part of the paradigm's enforcement arm, there were freedoms men forgot they didn't have.

Women, on the other hand, suffer no such impediment to raising the appropriate questions that significant change requires (they may face others, however.) They have been used to living by laws they played no role in formulating. To watching testosterone-based nonsense bring ridiculous situations about in their every day lives (it hurts to write this!) To suffering acts of disrespect on a daily basis, be it gratuitously in the street, or only moderately less gratuitously when prodded to get back in line after demonstrating independent thought. They have been aware all along of the freedoms they didn't have, and by extension, the freedoms we were all deprived of.

Today, women demanding their rights unavoidably raise questions that concern not only their freedoms, but all of our freedoms. They do so naturally, unhindered by some of the chains men carry in their minds. To suppress their voice is to give up some of our own freedoms. What they have to contribute will benefit all Egyptians, men and women alike.

I have often heard in recent days that women are a part of this revolution alongside the men. I would say that they not only stand side by side with the men, but in certain ways, they will even lead.


  1. With respect bro, this is a slightly simplistic view of a society that is a lot more complex than you illustrate. There is no doubt that women have in the last few decades on the whole not received full representation and rights, but historically women have had a significant role both publicly and more importantly within the complex sociological structure that is misunderstood by the west. Just watch a few Egyptian soaps and you'll get my drift. Women have always had a strong role in middle eastern society.

  2. Thanks for commenting dude. Generalizations though there may be (and I would argue they are a little inevitable to illustrate complex matters) I have to question whether the strong role you speak of is an equal role which contributes to directing the way things are going.

    Also, in my last trip to Cairo, I was personally witness to harassment in the street and was shocked to find it would happen more than once a day when I was there.

    Then there is obviously what happened in Tahrir Square on International Women's day.

    I am open to discussion. If I get a lot of "What you on about, that's not what's going on at all" feedback from men and women alike then I'll be happy to accept the blog post was just a brain fart.