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Tue Feb 26, 2013, 11:22 AM

With Tasers And Placards, The Women Of Egypt Are Fighting Back Against Sexism

By Laurie Penny

Source: New Statesman

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Egypt has tolerated a culture of misogyny for many generations. In the past year, however, there has been a change in mood. Women from all walks of life are afraid to go out in the street at all, whether they’re marching to bring down the government or popping to the shop for a pint of milk. Even Tahrir Square, the symbolic political heart of the nation, has become all but impassable to any woman without a hefty male escort.

One of the groups fighting back is Op - AntiSH – pronounced “Oppantish” and standing for Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment – a gang of volunteers, some of them men and many of them women who have been raped and assaulted. OpAntiSH physically stops assaults in Tahrir Square and the surrounding areas, using Tasers, spray paint, fists, force, sticks, anything they can put their hands on to protect women from “mob attacks”. They divide into task-teams with specific jobs: some to summon rescuers to the scene of an assault, some to grab the victim and take her to safety, some to distribute the contents of emergency packs containing spare clothes, water and blankets. It’s all down to them, because the police are far more concerned with attacking protesters than protecting women.

Egypt is not the only country where women are bearing the brunt of social frustration and public anger. But the women of Egypt and their allies have understood what the rest of the world has failed so far to grasp – that meaningful social progress cannot exclude women. Western journalists using the sex assault pandemic to imply that Egypt somehow isn’t ready for regime change, to imply that Egyptian men are out of control, have fundamentally misunderstood what this revolution is, and what it can be.

“The question is, whose revolution?” says Amr Gharbeia, one of OpAntiSH’s many young male volunteers. “For conservatives, the revolution has been victorious – it has put them in power. For some people, it stops at just a bit more freedom. But, for some, the revolution has to go further – it has to include freedom for women.”

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When I saw all those pictures of the uprising and protests, there were so many brave women standing shoulder to shoulder with the men. I really hoped things would be so much better for them, and that Egypt would be an example of a revolution that included full equal rights. Now, human rights organisations are saying that gender equality has taken a step backwards.

But more worrying, says Kamel, is that the Muslim male-dominated constituent assembly tasked with drafting a new constitution for Egypt is in a position to enshrine discriminatory limitations on women in the national charter. Not only are women almost entirely excluded from the constitution writing process, the assembly is stacked with Islamist figures who activists claim are attempting to impose their conservative religious values on all Egyptian society.

Many of the constituent assembly’s liberal and secular members resigned in objection to what one described as “a set will to produce a constitution that would be the cornerstone of a religious state, which will preserve the principles of the fallen regime and ignore the pillars of the Egyptian uprising of freedom, dignity and social justice.”

One particular point of contention is the wording of Article 68 in the draft constitution, which states that women are equal to men in political, economic, and social life provided that equality does not contradict the provisions of Sharia (Islamic law). Rights groups have opposed the article’s ambiguous religious framing.

Nehad Abu Komsan, director of the Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights (ECWR), explains that Sharia has in many instances been used to reinforce negative social attitudes towards women and impose restrictions on their freedom. Linking women’s rights to undefined provisions of Islamic law “opens the door to radical interpretations that can be used against women.”


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