Women at the Front Lines

by | 4 Jan 2014 | The Blog | 0 comments

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An Email-Conversation with Professor Mervat F. Hatem from the Department of Political Science, Howard University on the Role of Women in the Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Egypt.

UF: In your most recent article in current issue of the Middle East Report 268 you discuss the role of women in the counterrevolution. You argue that the counterrevolution has driven a gap between secular women – you also call them liberal – and Islamist women who support Mursi who were united during the revolution. Could you give us a brief idea of what you are arguing in your article?

You usually see discussions of the role that women play in revolution which presume that women support positive societal change. You never see them associated with negative and conservative roles in the history of their society. This article is an attempt to correct some of the romantic assumptions we make about women as virtuous actors which we never make about men. As part of the normalization of this discussion, you can then move away dealing with them as a homogeneous population examining the class, generational and ethnic difference that can complicate our understanding of the concerns they bring to the discussion.

UF: In your article you mention that many secular women supported the overthrow of the Mursi-government, however have been left with no better representation of woman’s interests than before. You illustrate that the counterrevolution has resulted in a return to both the authoritarian style rule which the revolution opposed, as well as what you call “Mubarak-style tokenism”. Although three women have positions in the current cabinet, the representation and debate of women’s questions and interests are still clearly impeded.

Discussing the gap between secular and Islamist woman which you argue existed since the 1980s but seemed to be vanishing during the revolution and then re-opened with the counterrevolution, you very interestingly highlight that it was precisely women’s activism that has been used as way to delegitimize the protest of pro-Mursi supporters. The liberals have accused the Muslim Brotherhood of “using” women for the interests and thereby deny these women any form of agency. You describe women’s mass participation in the sit-ins at Rabi’a mosque and al-Nahda Square. They were active in the provision for daily needs, in the interaction with the media as well as at the front lines. Especially, being at the front lines between the male protesters and the security forces made them very often the first victims. One of which was Esma Beltagi, a 17-year old woman who was killed by army forces in the first days of the counter-revolution, as a symbol for the violence of the army against the Muslim Brotherhood. Her image was specifically used by Pro-Mursi supporters in Turkey as a symbol against the counter-revolution. Her picture was projected onto the walls of the Egyptian Consulate in Istanbul from a ferry on the Bosporus – an unprecedented event. Is there a tendency to use her image or that of other women as a symbol of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt itself, too?

Esma Beltagi’s death in the attack on the Rabi’a mosque was reported by all major newspapers, so was the death of the son of the supreme guide. She was dealt with as one of the many martyrs who lost their lives that day. The Muslim Brotherhood has not accorded special status to their own sons and daughters who have lost their lives. It is part of the equalizing dynamic that the movement claims have even though their sons and daughters lead privileged lives that have a great in common with their secular counterparts.

The Brotherhood always makes special mention of the role that women members play in the movement. They are aware of the fact that this serves to correct the secular claims that they are not friendly to women. They are keen to show that their women are as active and as committed the movement as the men are. There is an emphasis on the complementarity of the roles that men and women play and that distinguishes them from other movements. For instance, women play important roles in turning out the vote of other women. Islamist women also have no problems instructing other women to vote Islamist. This actually is contrary to the electoral rules, but they do not seem to care about the rules and see the end (the election of Islamist candidates) as justifying the break of these rules.

UF: The questioning of Islamist women’s agency by the liberals seems particularly interesting given that women – as you also point out in your article – were just as active and also on the front lines during the revolution itself. Could you say a bit more about the position of women in the revolution itself? Did they have any specific protest forms which differ from those of men, an own repertoire of protest forms?

The first 18 days of protest, which contributed enough popular pressure to force president Hosni Mubarak to step down, celebrated that women were side by side with men in Tahrir square and that their presence added to the numbers and the general consensus that the old regime had to go. What was curious about that period is that women who participated reported no sexual harassment, but felt very much accepted and treated as citizens who had a right to be there side by side with men. By March 7, when women attempted to celebrate international women’s day in the square they were attacked. What happened to explain the change in attitude remains a mystery. Some reported that those who attacked them were the regime thugs that had been employed since 2005 to intimidate active women. Could it be that the gender agenda had less legitimacy than the national one? We do not have answers to these questions to explain this particular change that occurred in less than 4 weeks from February 11 to March 7.

UF: Vickie Langohr’s article in the same issue of MERIP discusses in detail this strong increase in harassment of women protestors with over 200 cases of assault since 2011 and illustrates the way in which new forms of activism developed against these assaults. These new forms including a kind of protection-system with intervention teams and telephone hotlines were initiated both from within existing organisational structures, like the human rights network, as well as by individuals outside such organisations.

Initially, it was often argued that the Egyptian Revolution was carried by people who were not affiliated to organisations and only mobilised by social media. However, organisations such as trade unions did actually play a role. What is the case for women’s organisations?

What most analysts agree on is that there were new methods of organization like the use of social media to inform people which roads to take and which to avoid. There were also old forms of organization that made these large protests also effective. Labor unions and their members participated as individual and as groups, but by February 9 when a wave of protests were announced in various parts of the country that had the effect of sealing the fate of president Mubarak. The army appeared less willing to stick by him if it meant a general strike. One should also add that youth groups like April 6 and others played an important role introducing new forms of organization that relied on the use of “networks” contributed to what some described as horizontal leaderless movements that made arresting people superfluous i.e. it had no effect on stopping the protest because they were replaced by others who kept the numbers multiplying. Women’s NGOs represent the activism of urban middle class, while the developmental ones deliver important social services to working class women.

UF: Were demands on Women’s rights specifically voiced in the revolution or did they get concealed by broader demands for human rights and democracy?

I think the general goals of the revolution, which were bread, liberty, social justice and human dignity, responded to the needs of women too. Poor women found the demand for bread and basic needs to be relevant. Liberty, which was identified with the development of a democratic system could offer basis for the representation of women of different classes.

Most importantly, the demand for human dignity provided a new framework for the discussion of sexual harassment and the need for the respect of the integrity of women’s bodies. I think the word for sexual harassment was coined after the revolution and the focus on this problem has had the effect of putting the focus on the daily lives of women breaking a long standing taboo on the discussion of sexuality and sexual violence.


Hatem, M. (2013). Gender and Counterrevolution in Egypt. Middle East Report 268 (43) 3, pp. 10-17



Ulrike Flader

Ulrike received her PhD from the Department of Sociology at the University of Manchester. Her ethnographic research focusses on everyday resistance practices of the Kurdish population in Turkey. Drawing from the notions of power and resistance in the work of Michel Foucault and Judith Butler, she analyses forms of everyday resistance against state policies of assimilation.