A year ago, on International Women’s Day, a few hundred Egyptian women paraded through Cairo’s Tahrir Square only to be booed, spat on and jostled by several dozen men. “Go home and look after the children,” some taunted them, mocking their presence in the iconic heart of Egypt’s popular uprising.
How quickly the tables had turned for them.
The incident occurred less than a month after Hosni Mubarak, the country’s ruler for almost 30 years, had been ousted from power, a seismic moment that owed as much to the passion and action of Egypt’s women as to its men.
The age-old patriarchy Egypt’s women had endured was back and, more than one-man rule and more than Islam alone, it remains the greatest challenge for the country’s women.
Women had been on the front lines of battle here, as they had been in Tunisia and would be shortly after in Bahrain. In Yemen, it was one woman, Tawakol Karman, who almost single-handedly led the population into revolt against another 30-year rule, that of Ali Abdallah Saleh, for which Ms. Karman would be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
But in Egypt, the most populous, most significant Arab state, the worst for women was yet to come. On March 9, the day after the parade and following a large march of women and men protesting the previous day’s incident, a relatively peaceful sit-in saw half a dozen women rounded up, stripped and forcibly administered a “virginity test.”
Samira Ibrahim, a young hijab-wearing woman from Suhag, in Upper Egypt, was one of them. “They took us first to the Egypt Museum,” said Ms. Ibrahim, now 25, referring to the salmon-coloured stucco building at the north end of Tahrir Square that holds national treasures such as the gold mask of Tutankhamen. There, Ms. Ibrahim says, she and other women were beaten and tortured with electric prods.
Later they would be taken to a military prison where they were forced to undergo a manual cervical examination by a male doctor. “I asked if at least I could have a woman doctor do the exam but they ignored me,” she said, feeling again the humiliation she endured.
Shame at having had such an invasive procedure forced on her would silence most Egyptian women, but Samira told her father, a builder in Suhag and an outspoken Islamist. He supported her even to the extent of her taking her complaint against the state to court.
“We’re a generation that won’t accept humiliation any longer,” she told me, sitting in a downtown Cairo café. “The shame is in silence,” she said.
Virginity tests had been given in the past, though not usually as a tool of the police to shame women and scare them from further protests. No one, however, ever went public with their experience. It took this one young woman to make a difference.
Women from all parties and walks of life praised her courage.
“Breaking the barrier of fear … breaking the silence, was one of the most important achievements of the revolution,” said Buthaina Kamel, the only woman to have declared her candidacy for president in the country’s May election.
Ms. Ibrahim’s case still is before the military courts, joined now by charges from some of the other women attacked that night. The initial charge of rape has been reduced to one of sexual harassment, she said, and the defendants have been narrowed to just one soldier rather than the military as a whole.
But while the military has said it now has stopped the administration of such tests, women have a long way to go if they are to feel that the uprising in which they fought was victorious.
“Things are a little better for women,” but not good enough, said Someya Adel Torky, 25, an independent Islamist member of the Egyptian Current, a party mostly of youths. Her complaint was mostly over the tiny number of women elected to parliament – only 10 out of 508 members; down from 64 spots reserved for women in the last Mubarak-era parliament.
Too few young people bothered to vote or get involved, said Ms. Torky, a lawyer.
“The revolution is not a magic wand,” she adds. “Women have to impose themselves” if they’re to make a difference. The determined young woman has a dynamic personality reminiscent of Yemen’s Tawakol Karman.
And, like Ms. Ibrahim, she has the proud support of an understanding and active Islamist father.
This night she and her father are participating in a big rally for Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, an independent Islamist candidate for president with a fair chance of winning.
On the other side of the political spectrum, Sally Sami, also 25, one of the original anti-regime bloggers, joined the leftist Social Democratic Party after the ouster of Mr. Mubarak. She too believes a woman must impose herself to make a difference, and is very disappointed in the results of the election, especially when it comes to women in her own party. Of the 19 Social Democrats elected, only one is female.
Interestingly, Ms. Sami noted, it was the Muslim Brotherhood – an Islamist movement that concerns a lot of secular women – that sent the highest number of females to the legislature.
“All of Egypt, including its women, is being reborn,” said a very happy Entesar Hamed, a full-time pharmacist in Alexandria and member of the Muslim Sisters, the distaff side of the Muslim Brotherhood.
The group’s Freedom and Justice Party captured about 47 per cent of the parliamentary seats, the largest bloc. The Nour party, another Islamist party with a puritan agenda, came second with 25 per cent of the seats.
“I feel very proud,” said another Muslim Sister, Soad Arafa, an administrator of a religious school in Alexandria. “Women have been given a chance to participate in this great struggle,” she said.
Both women joined the Islamist organization 22 years ago. Dr. Hamed, now 48, was at college; Ms. Arafa, 42, was just out of high school.
Dressed in almost identical green hijabs and robes, the two women tried to dispel the notion that non-observant or non-Islamic women have anything to fear from the Islamists. There is no plan to impose modest dress or hair covering on other women, nor to ban alcohol or public displays of affection, as often reported, they said.
“It was convenient for the former regime to portray all Islamists as extremists,” said Ms. Arafa, explaining how Egyptians came to fear the Muslim Brothers. In this, she said, they were “helped by the media” and by “a few extremists” found mostly among the puritan Salafists.
Sahar el-Maguey, an Egyptian novelist, professor and feminist, hates the term sisterhood. “It’s an example of the patriarchal system” by which these Islamist movements are ruled, she explained. Ms. Maguey also is concerned that their economic agenda is “the same as Gamal Mubarak’s,” a reference to the son of the former president who brought in a wave of reforms to liberalize the economy. “They call for lots of wealth being generated and nothing for social justice,” she said.
With Islamists so firmly in control of the parliament, Ms. Sami worries that education, desperately in need of modernization, will only continue with learning by rote and too great an emphasis on the Koran.
Though, she admits, even the Salafists aren’t sounding as bad as many people feared.
“They all sound moderate now,” said Dina Mohamed, Egypt’s pre-eminent belly-dancer. “But wait for eight years and see what they sound like then,” she said before her Thursday night performance at the Semiramis Hotel. She was referring to the potential of two four-year terms with the Islamists controlling parliament.
Ms. Mohamed said she was not worried the Islamists might put her job in jeopardy any time soon. “They have a lot of work to do before getting down to what women wear or not wear,” she said, citing the dreadful state of the economy and the absence of tourism.
“I think the transition is worse than the Mubarak regime,” said Ms. Kamel, the presidential candidate, “especially violence against women.”
The worst example of that was captured on video one night in December when police stripped a woman down to her blue bra and dragged her into custody.
The woman has never stepped forward and identified herself, but she made her mark.
“She exposed them,” said Ms. Torky, the young Islamist, referring to the security forces.
They’re doing these horrible things “because they fear women advancing,” said Ms. Maguey, the novelist. “It challenges their manhood.”
Indeed, patriarchy is the next frontier in Egypt. And it’s a big problem. It lies behind honour killings, behind enforcement of customs that keep women hidden, behind domestic violence.
“One year is not enough time to change a population of 80 million,” said Ms. Sami.
“It will take another revolution,” said Ms. Torky, appearing eager for the battle.
“It’s a good time to be an Egyptian woman,” she concluded, “but there’s a lot of work to be done.”