The women’s revolution: Marwa Rakha in Egypt
- Published: 09 April 2011
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Equality for women is progressing slowly in the Middle East. Even in Egypt women can now vote and there are women in the Egyptian cabinet. However, they are not allowed to travel abroad without their husband’s permission and Egypt still does not have female judges. Lynda Renham-Cook spoke to women’s rights activist, author and blogger Marwa Rakha.
10 April 2011
Liberating women in the Middle East
Every day that I check my Facebook home page there is another piece of news that reminds me how lucky I am to be a woman living in England. It has also alerted me to the bravery of other women who have decided it is time to stop their humiliation.
We cannot fail to have read the story of Iman al-Obaidi who has not been seen since she was dragged by security guards and government minders from the Rixos Hotel on Saturday 26 march to prevent her from recounting her story of rape by 15 militiamen in Libya, to reporters staying at the hotel.
There have since been conflicting stories, one that she is being sued by her alleged assailants. But the chaotic and violent scenes on Saturday would convince anyone that there were many who did not wish her to speak.
A petition demanding her release was well on the way to reaching its target of half a million signatures when this was written. "Words cannot express the courage Iman showed in speaking out - and we can only imagine the terror she must be facing right now in the hands of (Muammar) Gaddafi's infamous thugs," said Avaaz.org, organiser of the online campaign. Women have become a significant weapon in war and uprisings.
Rape as a weapon of war
Al Jazeera the popular news channel website has already reported that several doctors in Libya say they have found Viagra tablets and condoms in the pockets of dead pro-Gaddafi fighters, alleging that they were using rape as a weapon of war.
They also claim they have been treating female rape survivors who were allied with pro-democracy forces. In March this year Amnesty International called on the Egyptian authorities to investigate forced virginity tests that were inflicted by the army on women protesters arrested in Tahrir Square.
It was reported that after Army officers violently cleared the square of protesters on 9 March, at least 18 women were held in military detention. Amnesty International has been told by women protesters that they were beaten and subjected to strip searches while being photographed by male soldiers then forced to submit to virginity checks and threatened with prostitution charges.
"Forcing women to have ‘virginity tests’ is utterly unacceptable for its purpose is to degrade women because they are women," said Amnesty International. "All members of the medical profession must refuse to take part in such so-called 'tests.’
Women in Egypt have always taken one step forward and one step backwards in their fight for equality. When it was published 100 years ago, the book entitled The Liberation of Women caused uproar. Its author – a judge called Qassem Amin – was he subject of a torrent of criticism after arguing that improving the status of women would help Egypt develop.
A century on, women have made many strides towards this goal. Women can now vote and there are women in the Egyptian cabinet. However, women are not allowed to travel abroad without their husband’s permission and Egypt still does not have women judges.
What made you decide to suddenly speak up? Can you take us through the steps from being a shy girl to a confident speaker?
It hurt too much; being different tore me to pieces. I used to consciously stop any line of thoughts because I did not know where the thoughts came from. I was not sure if I was insane or possessed. I kept bottling in those "weird thoughts" and "forbidden questions" until I could no longer take it. That was when [my alter ego] ‘Jenny’ was born. I was too weak, too scared, and too intimidated to allow Marwa to be.
Jenny gave me the voice that I lacked, the confidence that I craved, and the sanity that I almost lost trying to fit in a sick society.
In January 2007 Marwa embraced Jenny and we became one. Suddenly I no longer cared who thought what of my ideas. I am who I am and I am true to myself. I do not lie, cheat, fake, or pretend to be someone that I am not.
I realized that I do not need to fit in and that I enjoy the company of my cats more than being around people who made me sick with their games and manipulation.
Surprisingly enough, when I accepted who I am people accepted me and I began attracting people who think like me. Confidence comes from knowing that you are a whole person and that no one has the power to hurt you unless you allow them to.
Can you describe how you are feeling at the moment? You are an expectant mum living in a country that has just had an amazing turnaround. Can you first of all describe your life as a woman living in Egypt before the revolution? What were or still are the difficulties for you?
As a woman, I would like to be realistic about my expectations after the revolution; nothing changes overnight or over a month. People’s perceptions, attitudes, and behaviours are very difficult to change.
For example, yes we had a historic revolution where a corrupt regime was toppled but did that impact how men view women? No! It did not! Despite the fact that women stood next to men in Tahrir square chanting against corruption, men still do not see women as their partners – I do not like to use the word “equal” to describe the ideal relationship between men and women!
Before the revolution, women were objectified and treated as things that should be covered up or eye-candy that should be exposed to please men.
Before the revolution, women were the victims of sexual harassment on the street and in public transportation. It is ironic how they were also blamed for it!
Before the revolution, your average Egyptian would not trust a political opinion voiced by a woman. “Women know nothing about politics and should stay out of the political arena”, they advocated.
Before the revolution, female political and public involvement was kept down to the bare minimum – in the parliament and in the judiciary system, for example.
Before the revolution, little girls were still subjected to FGM (female genital mutilation) – even though there is a clear law against the practice.
Before the revolution, a mother’s most important concern is marrying off her daughter “before it is too late”!
Before the revolution, married women were subjected to emotional and physical abuse in the name of “obeying God”!
During the revolution itself – those three weeks that made history – such points were eliminated! They were just gone! Men and women stood together hand in hand – as Egyptians regardless of their gender – and won the battle against corruption.
Now the revolution is over and everything is back to normal! The attitude towards women has not been impacted by the iconic victory.
On March 8, many women’s rights activists marched in Tahrir square – the same place where men and women stood together for three weeks – and demanded equality. They were attacked! Men chanted against them with slogans like: “Men want to topple feminists” and “Since when did women have a voice?”
They were asked to go home and obey God! They were let down by the average Egyptian man and woman alike! Their demands simply did not ring any bells within the “submissive” women who got used to being used and abused. Personally, I was against this march! I am against fighting for women who would not lift a finger to fight harassment or abuse.
Motherhood was one of my main drives in this revolution! I wanted a better Egypt for my baby. The regime for me represented a direct threat; poor education and health care, polluted air, water, and food, frustrated generation after the other, and humiliating living conditions.
I did not want my son to live in the Egypt that I grew up in. I am eternally indebted to the brave men and women who fought on our behalf, to the martyrs who were killed for our cause, and to the people who stood strong against intimidation and fear-mongering tactics.
Can you describe your feelings during the revolution, the fears and anxieties? Is there a particular day that stands out for you apart from the day that Mubarak stepped down?
During the revolution, I was on a constant roller-coaster of hope and despair! There were times when I felt that Mubarak would step down and that we were a few minutes away from victory, and then Mubarak would give a speech in the exact opposite direction, leaving me wondering if I will ever have another president!
There was fear. My friends were out there. Tear gas, rubber bullets, metal pellets, and live ammunition were used to disperse the protesters and I sat there hoping for the best yet expecting the worst.
There were three horrible days:
January 28: when police forces used extreme violence against peaceful protesters.
February 2: when members of the corrupt regime sent men on camels and horsebacks with whips, knives, swords, and guns to attack peaceful protesters in Tahrir.
February 10: when we were all expecting Mubarak to step down in his speech, but he ended up talking about his future plans for the country!
Did you attend the protests?
I did go to the protests on Saturday 29 January. I had to be a part of it. My baby was pushing me to go ... so I went ... spent the whole day protesting and chanting.
Everyone was shocked to see a seven-months pregnant woman in the protests but everyone was supportive as well; people smiled at me, cheered for my baby, gave me juice and water, and gave me space to march without hitting me – even by mistake.
Can you describe your feelings the day that Mubarak resigned and those of the following day?
Disbelief! This word sums up exactly how I felt when he finally said he was leaving! The day after, I expected him to come back at any moment – like the villain in any horror movie who sneaks up on the good guys after they thought they had finally gotten rid of him.
What do you see for Egypt now?
A long way to democracy. We will take baby steps towards democracy and real freedom but we are on the right track.
What are your own personal hopes for the future as a woman living in Egypt?
As a woman, I hope that every Egyptian woman would start her own revolution against decades of abuse. I hope that every Egyptian woman would realize how strong she is and that she is fully entitled to a life of freedom and real dignity instead of a life of submission and endless humiliation.