The security vacuum created by the collapse of the Mubarak regime not only enabled men with sick attitudes to women to roam the streets with relative impunity, it also unleashed the use of sexual violence as a political weapon to intimidate women from joining the uprising.This weapon of mass degradation has been employed to varying degrees by Egypt’s various leaders over the past two and a half years, from assaults and rapes on Tahrir Square to “virginity tests”.Although this has succeeded to some extent, many women have refused to be cowed and admirably still continue to play prominent roles in Egypt’s revolution, both for collective freedom and their own. Women have even braved further assault to protest against sexual harassment, while a number of campaigns have been launched to protect women attending demonstrations, such as OpAntiSh, and to monitor and combat the phenomenon, such as HarassMap.One recent attempt to reclaim the streets, ‘Hanelbes Fasateen‘, urged women to go out in dresses in defiance of harassers. Using old black-and-white images of elegant young Egyptian women in summer dresses strolling unharassed down the street, the campaign employed a certain amount of nostalgia for a lost Egypt of greater social freedom.
(Egyptian women sunbathing in Alexandria, 1959 )
Bigger hope of modernisation and progress for Middle East may come INVARIABLY through women’s involvement in change.
It’s something perfectly understood by rulers in all these lands, and because of this it’s women who suffer specially the oppressing and judgemental views of those societies, where men can perfectly be dressed in a western way without being considered, at least “decadent” if not indecent or immoral.
In late 1950’s, Nasser was pushing the pan-arabist movement and as far as women’s liberation was considered a symptome of western colonialist influence, it was everything but promoted.
Also islamists reacted to Nasser’s hostility vs the Muslim Brotherhood by repressing women’s freedom on dressing codes, repeating the same reactionist scenario that could have happened in other Middle East countries, even in Saudi Arabia, Iran or Afghanistan, where pictures of women around the late 50’s until mid 70’s give us a very different view on how things could have been.
When I was in Cairo I saw many pics of this period, when streets were clean and the city could compete with every other mediterranean european capital… and women looked like every other free woman in the world. Oum Khaltoum packed theaters in Paris and Egypt was a cultural avantgarde for arab language and arts.
Today, nothing is left of that, except many nostalgic pics in walls of many cafeterias, and the pages created by the chronists of a lost time, such as Taha Hussein, Yusuf Idris or Naguib Mahfouz.
Maybe just one on every ten women I saw in Cairo streets on Aug’08 were unveiled, and men looked quite disrespectfully at those who weren’t “properly dressed” … this kind of behaviour was what ruined completely my view of that nation.
Now looking at this pic of women in Ishkenderiyah (Alexandria) in 1959, I can see my mother in them.
And there’s nothing indecent, immoral or disrespectful in my mother, whatever she wore in late 1950’s on a beach. That’s a lesson that will be learnt maybe by the grandchildren of this generation of arabs. Insh’Allah.