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

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Originally Published by Al Masr Al Youm, March 8, 2011

By Ali Abdel Mohsen

A million woman march held on Tuesday in honor of International Women’s Day turned ugly when violent altercations erupted between several opposing camps. The amount of women attending the demonstration held in Tahrir Square was far less than the targeted million–hovering somewhere between the 200-400 range–but was still large enough to provoke the seemingly majority male crowd.

Women lined the sidewalks directly across from the square, holding up signs and banners demanding equality and a say in the ongoing constitutional amendments. A number of men seemed to misinterpret these demands, however, as a call for a female president, and proceeded to spread the message through the crowds, with the apparent intention of inciting anger–a strategy that, unfortunately, seemed to work.

Initially, detractors responded to the female-led protest with mockery and sarcastic comments.

“A man couldn’t rule this country; they want to hand it over to a woman?” an older man asked Al-Masry Al-Youm with genuine bewilderment.

“Let’s get out of here, I have to go breast-feed my baby,” one young man was heard laughing to his friend.

“Yeah, and I still have a load of laundry to take care of,” his friend replied.

Tensions, however, rapidly increased when both sides began hurling accusations at each other. “You’re all foreign agents,” the men began chanting, with the women responding, “you are not the youth of the revolution.”

A smaller group provided more level-headed chants but their calls for “patience, understanding, and open dialogue” were lost in the ruckus.

“Look at all those foreigners,” one man, gesturing to the line of women, complained to Al-Masry Al-Youm. “They’re clearly not from here,” he said in reference to the group that seemed mostly composed of Egyptians, albeit with a fair number of foreigner-looking protesters dotting the front-lines.

The man’s objections were later expanded into an angry chorus of “Leave! Leave!”–chanted by the protesters as they shuffled closer to the increasingly anxious women.

Twice Al-Masry Al-Youm spotted the same three young men try to push through the crowd and strike the women. The aggressors were held back but, despite the majority’s objections, the three young men kept trying to reach the women, while encouraging others to join.

“It saddens me that these are the people who fought for this country,” said demonstrator Janan Omar, 25, minutes before an angered man tried to rip her sign out of her hands. “If they don’t agree with us, then they should just leave us alone. There’s no need for this reaction.”

Through her work in educational development, Omar realizes the value a stronger female voice might bring to the upcoming reformations.

“Statistically, women tend to vote for more social and welfare projects, and raises in educational funding,” she said, while asserting Egypt could greatly benefit from such programs. “I can’t believe they’re willing to make such a strong stand against us, based on nothing but misguided cultural beliefs.”

Activist Fardous el-Bahnassy also claimed to feel an intense sadness at the resentment the women’s demonstration spurred.

“It’s tragic to realize that the undermining and oppressive methods that defined the previous regime have entrenched themselves in the personality of so many Egyptians,” she said. “There’s no desire to listen or empathize, just to attack and silence.”

Meanwhile, the men participating in the women’s movement were the subject of intense ridicule by the opposing groups who chanted, “shame on you,” and “you are not men,” among several other derogatory remarks. When admonished for holding their rally at such a delicate time, one male member of the women’s movement tried to explain to the crowds that they were observing an international event, the date of which was scheduled independent of the Egyptian revolution.

This explanation, however, was quickly and aggressively dismissed by its opponents. A subgroup of men tried to make their own position heard, namely, that they were against the women’s demands, but opposed to the idea of attacking them.

“Those who love Egypt should protect it, not destroy it,” they argued. They were, for all intents and purposes, completely ignored.

The situation escalated when a group of men suddenly pushed through the lines formed by the female protesters, forcing them to retreat. The chants of “leave!” only intensified, and several men were seen cheering. Two women were attacked in front of Al-Masry Al-Youm–one of them punched in the face–and, under the protection of a small group of men, managed to cross the street to a more quiet location.

Minutes later, however, the crowd of incensed men rushed towards them, prompting people to run in all directions. As people fled the scene, members of the armed forces were seen rushing in, grabbing one young man and asking him what the problem was.

“They’re beating up the women,” the man replied.

Scattered groups gathered at the more peaceful end of the street, and many young girls were seen breaking down in tears and struggling to collect themselves. Many of them claimed to have been repeatedly groped, while others reported their purses had been snatched. Several men roamed between the groups, trying to reassure the women and assist them in any possible way.

Several of the women, understandably shaken, remained skeptical of the men. As one young woman explained, the demonstration was chaotic to the extent that “it was hard to tell what was going on.”

“You couldn’t tell which guys were trying to help you, and which were trying to grope you, until it turned into a stampede,” the girl explained, while trying to console her friend, shaking and in tears.

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