Revolutionary Women

Asmaa Mahfouz -- a 26-year-old Cairo University graduate -- starred in video appeals widely circulated on Facebook that helped spur the latest protests in Egypt and turn them into a mass public uprising. It's not only remarkable that social media was so effective in a country where dissent has for decades been driven underground: It's perhaps most remarkable that Mahfouz is a woman.

In Egypt, street and sexual harassment has been endemic, even described as a "social cancer." Egyptian women have become rightfully wary of any sort of public demonstration where they might become targets of abuse. During the 2009 celebration of Eid al-Fitr, no fewer than 150 men were arrested for a harassing spree in a single Cairo neighborhood.

It might even be worse during protests, which have proved especially disconcerting for women, in part because many alleged attacks come from the security forces as a way to quell the demonstrations. In 2005, for instance, hundreds of young men affiliated with President Hosni Mubarak's National Democratic Party assisted in physically and sexually assaulting female protesters of a government referendum, tearing blouses off two.

But the current uprising has been more inclusive, and unlike its precursors, it has remained a relatively civil affair. Indeed, many have brought children to demonstrations or have taken shifts with a spouse -- Elham Eidarous, 30, and her husband alternate nights in Tahrir Square in order to share the responsibility of caring for their young son.

As Eidarous notes, women who once braced themselves for sexual harassment whenever they stepped foot outside of their home are now sleeping relatively peacefully on the streets outside of the Egyptian Parliament, with fellow protesters standing guard over them.

That's partly because women like Mahfouz took control. The way Mahfouz played into traditional gender roles has made a lot of difference. In order to undermine the potential for gender-based violence, she insisted, "If you have any honor and dignity as a man, come. Come and protect me and the other girls in the protest." And they did -- not in ones and twos but by the tens of thousands. Her sheer bravado cut deep enough into the machismo of Egyptian culture to incite and inspire.

Mahfouz's friend and fellow founder of a youth group that organized nationwide strikes in 2008 in what's known as the April 6 Movement, Amr Ezz, 27, told New York Times correspondent Mona El-Naggar, "[Mahfouz] got in front of the camera and said what she wanted with a daring and enthusiastic attitude that encouraged people. The fact that a woman was able to do this made the men feel challenged."

But organizers had messages for the female protesters, too. As Mona Eltahawy, an award-winning Egyptian-born journalist explained, this time around, Twitter, Facebook, and text messages were widely used to encourage women to take precautions. As she described to National Public Radio's Michel Martin, "They would say things like wear two layers of clothes so that if they rip off the first, you're still dressed. No zippers. Carry a can of mace. If you wear a headscarf, make sure you tie it this way and not that way and wear two." Women might have hoped for the best, but they were prepared for the worst.

These preemptive measures to protect women are especially necessary during times of protest, Eltahawy says, because women were both physically and sexually assaulted during previous public demonstrations. The fear that women might be brutalized as they marched for increased civil liberties has now struck a blow at something larger than life for many Egyptians: honor.

The protests -- and these methods of protecting the women in them -- are also taking place amid concentrated efforts to reduce all types of gender-based violence, especially using new media. HarassMap, an interactive website, collects and reports unwarranted sexual activity that ranges from ogling to indecent exposure to stalking to sexual invites. While more and more reports were collected in recent months, they have all but stopped since protesters took to the streets on Jan. 25.

By fostering accountability and awareness for gender-based violence, such initiatives reveal a broad desire for purposive and proactive social change, one that has been bubbling beneath the same political discontent that has filled Cairo's Tahrir Square.

Concentrating on getting women involved and keeping them safe has helped the protests, too. By deliberately framing this uprising as a matter of honor for men and women alike, its organizers have succeeded in drawing millions of discontented Egyptian denizens out onto the streets and keeping them there for weeks. Since ever-rising unemployment rates and a culture of corruption offer the most common explanations for sexual harassment, attacking those forces could also protect women in the long run.

As Dr. Helen Rizzo of the American University in Cairo told ABC News, "The issue is that you have young men that are unemployed or underemployed hanging out on the street with nothing to do. This [sexual harassment] is the way they prove their manliness to each other." A lack of economic opportunities in a conservative society such as Egypt helps fuel the violence against women. Complicating matters is the fact that men are only considered eligible partners in Egypt -- where many marriages are arranged -- once employed, and usually wait to move out of their parents' home until they get a job. In a state of prolonged adolescence, men often turn their frustrations toward women.

By focusing their frustration squarely on Mubarak and expressing dissent in a way that has never before been possible, young men and women hope to overcome the challenge of unemployment and build a future for themselves. The focus on changing economic and political realities has been strong, which might also help explain why the movement has been largely free from brutality. There is simply too much at stake.

Eidarous says, "This is a revolutionary moment in the development of our society. The situation of harassment in this country will depend on many things. If Egypt becomes more democratic, more free, if there is more deterrence for such crimes, more police enforcement, maybe the phenomenon of sexual harassment will cease."

Whether or not this current uprising can be called a Purity Protest, as Mike Giglio, a correspondent for The Daily Beast submits, one thing seems clear: The changes of the sort many Egyptians long to see are not limited to the realm of politics. As Mahfouz put it, "All of Egypt awaits tomorrow!"

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