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Drafting a New Story: Women's Rights in the Middle East

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Originally Posted in the New York Times, February 1, 2011

By Mona El-Naggar

CAIRO — People here are not afraid anymore — and it just may be that a woman helped break that barrier of fear.

Asmaa Mahfouz was celebrating her 26th birthday on Tuesday among tens of thousands of Egyptians as they took to the streets, parting with old fears in a bid to end President Hosni Mubarak’s three decades of authoritarian, single-party rule.

“As long as you say there is no hope, then there will be no hope, but if you go down and take a stance, then there will be hope.”

That was what Ms. Mahfouz had to say in a video she posted onlinemore than two weeks ago. She spoke straight to the camera and held a sign saying she would go out and protest to try to bring down Mr. Mubarak’s regime.

This was certainly not the first time a young activist used the Internet — later virtually shut down by the government — as a tool to organize and mobilize, but it departed from the convenient, familiar anonymity of online activism.

More than that, it was a woman who dared put a face to the message, unfazed by the possibility of arrest for her defiance. “Do not be afraid,” she said.

When Ms. Mahfouz posted this bold video, she said she worried about the reaction that it might generate in a society that expected women to behave in a more subdued and reserved manner.

“I felt that doing this video may be too big a step for me, but then I thought: For how much longer will I continue to be afraid and hesitant? I had to do something,” Ms. Mahfouz said.

To her surprise, dozens of other people picked up on the spirit of her message and started to post their own pictures, holding similar signs to their chests that declared their intent to take to the streets on Jan. 25 — last Friday — in what turned out to be a momentous national day of rage.

Ms. Mahfouz is one of the founders of the April 6 Youth Movement, a group of young, Internet-savvy activists who have been credited with a leading role in organizing the mass protests that now pose an unprecedented challenge to Mr. Mubarak’s monopoly over power.

Her main role within the group is to help shape its public message and reach out to what the group sees as the silent majority of youth in the country. She uses Facebook andTwitter as convenient methods for organizing and disseminating messages but finds that talking to people face to face is the best way to motivate them.

This, she said, is what inspired her to do the video. She wanted people to be able to see her, and she wanted to reach as many people as possible.

“It worked,” said Amr Ezz, 27, a friend of Ms. Mahfouz and one of the other founders of the youth group. Mr. Ezz said that they had been calling on people to join the protests through the usual methods, by posting anonymous written messages online and distributing fliers in the street. But Ms. Mahfouz introduced what Mr. Ezz called “visual blogging.”

“She got in front of the camera and said what she wanted with a daring and enthusiastic attitude that encouraged people,” he said.

Mr. Ezz also noted that her video motivated men even more than it motivated other women. “The fact that a woman was able to do this made the men feel challenged, and they wanted to do the same.”

Hundreds of thousands of Egyptians have now turned out in protest — mass demonstrations that followed the popular Tunisian uprising that forced President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali to leave his country.

In Egypt, as earlier in Tunisia, protesters braved the uninhibited use of force by police. The demonstrations built up to last week’s “angry Friday” and the “march of millions” on Tuesday.

The feeling now on the street in Egypt is one of empowerment, and it has taken all of society by storm — both men and women, whose public role in Egypt has traditionally been more circumscribed than in Tunisia.

“Female participation is at an equal standing — just like male participation — and female demonstrators are not shying away from marching despite the tear gas,” noted Amr Hamzawy, a research director at the Carnegie Middle East Center who has spent most of the last week in central Cairo, where demonstrators have converged. “It’s very impressive,” he said. “It’s not about male and female, it’s about everyone.”

In one scene in recent days, Mariam Soliman, a 28-year-old school counselor, led a group of men and women down a street as they gradually became surrounded by truckloads of riot police officers.

Ms. Soliman led the chant. “Down, down with Mubarak!” she yelled as loudly as she could, often adding adjectives to the name of the president that are not fit for print.

It was a charged picture, with Ms. Soliman playing a role that many women in Egypt would avoid — or delegate to a man. Not this woman.

“At least I’ll die defending my rights,” she said. “I am not socialist, I am not a liberal, I am not an Islamist. I am an Egyptian woman, a regular woman rejecting injustice and corruption in my country.”

“Women have to go down and participate and demand their rights, or is it going to be the men who fight for our rights?” Ms. Soliman explained.

Although it is still overwhelmingly men demonstrating, there is a new quality to the way Egyptians walk the streets now.

“Everyone used to say there is no hope, that no one will turn up on the street, that the people are passive,” Ms. Mahfouz said. “But the barrier of fear was broken!”

 

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