First post- Mubarak March 8 at Tehreer Square

By Sholeh Irani

Friday 18 March 2011

View online : Viewpoint

Viewpoint’s Redaktion member Sholeh Irani visited Cairo to report events for different alternative media outlets. She attended the March 8 demonstration at Tehreer Square. The manifestation was attacked. She reports: Who are these men, I asked a young girl. “They are thugs, could be Mubarak´s secret police agents who want to create chaos, some are Salafis.”

Women, some having their heads draped in chaddar while others bare headed, are standing in front of the demonstration. They are holding A3 papers inscribed with their demands. They are busy in an exchange of heated arguments with men holding a noisy counter-demonstration on the same venue. Women, however, are not scared at all. It is the first post-Mubarak International Women´s Day in Cairo.

Women stare back at the men holding counter-demonstration and shout back. The size of counter-demonstration is growing big with every passing minute. To express solidarity with women, a few young men also join the women’s demonstration in a bid to outdo the counter-demonstration. An appeal had been launched to hold a Million March on Women’s Day. The appeal fell on deaf ears. Instead their demonstration was attacked and demonstrating women were shoed away. But their message was clearly conveyed nonetheless.

This demonstration first assembled at 15.00 outside the offices of Journalist Union in the vicinity of Tehreer Square. A couple of hundred men and women then marched to Tehreer Square. There were lot of noted journalists, writers, academicians and women rights activists marching along.

Why people did not turn up in big numbers, I asked a woman activist.

“These days are full of happenings. In the first place, it is a working day and people are on their work places at this time. The Cairo University students have gone on a sit in-strike since yesterday. They are demanding the resignation of the vice chancellor. Many Christian women are camping out outside of the television station. They are protesting against the violence Christians have been subjected to as army remains passive in the face of threats to Egypt’s sizable Coptic minority”.

The demonstration waded through traffic and arrived at Tehreer Square. Hardly this demonstration had arrived here when a counter-demonstration, roughly of equal size, began to take place.

The demonstration was chanting: We want freedom, we want social justice, we want equality.

The counter-demonstration was screaming: You Mubarak lackeys! Go home. Your demands are Haram.

As I turn around, I come across a familiar face. It’s Tarek Maydaa, a Facebook friend whom I have been contacting on phone. He is one of the organizers. He is feeble but is strong when it comes to chanting. He is encouraging his comrades to chant loud.

“Tarek! is it you?” We stretch and twist our arms to reach each other for a hand shake among this crowd. “What do the counter-demonstration agitating about?” I ask him.

“Some of them think we are on Mubarak’s side. The Mubarak regime used to present itself as the champion of women cause which of course was a ruse. Under the Mubarak dictatorship, there used to be official March 8 demonstrations. These people are mixing things up,” he replies me.

“We have been protesting against the Mubarak regime and all the corrupt politicians side by side. Now we are fighting for equal rights and liberties for women. We are demanding civil laws, a new constitution that guarantees equal rights to women. Women deserve this. They have been fighting shoulder to shoulder against the Mubarak dictatorship and were injured as well as murdered. Women were staying twenty-four hours at Tehreer Square when many men were sleeping home peacefully. Now it is the time that all the Egyptian citizens stand up for women rights,” he says.

A quarrel breaks out. A young woman, her head covered, is surrounded by angry men. She is arguing with them passionately. She is not ready to give up. A man is trying to convince her that she should go home. I have lost Tarek.

“What do they want over there in the counter-demonstration,” I ask a young woman at the rear of demonstration where most of the demonstrators have gathered and are being interviewed by media.

“They were nice initially. Now they are becoming aggressive. This is not nice. But hope they pacify. It was like this even when the revolution began. But it was orderly later on. Hope this too becomes better,” she says.

She works with music band ‘Musicians Without Borders’. Last year she visited Sweden along with her band and performed at many churches, she narrates cheerfully. She goes on: “A women has been inducted in the new cabinet now. But it’s not enough. We need to raise awareness regarding the importance of women participation in all walks of life.”

Loitering around I speak to different women. They are determined to demand their share of revolution. They say that they were part of the revolution and they would have their demands met.

A leaflet in Arabic is being distributed. A young woman translates the text for me.

“The Women Coalition demands that women should be included in the committee responsible for new constitution. We want equal rights in the new constitution and an end to discriminatory laws from Mubarak’s era. We demand that all forms of sexual harassment and violence against women be criminalized. Women should have the possibility to contest the presidential election.”

A few are now saying that the demonstration is over. Others insist to stay as they expect more people to turn up. By now, the crowd at Tehreer Square has swelled to a few thousands. Along with some colleagues, I go to nearby famous Kentucky to buy some edibles so that we have the energy to stay on. When we return, we see a crowd chasing women away. It is chaos writ all over Tehreer Square.

“Some women were manhandled by men in the counter-demonstration, others were shoed away.” A women activist tells us.

Many women were chased away and these women sought refuge in nearby shops. Some of the activists who joined the march from the start are not to be seen anywhere. The counter-demonstration is now occupying the venue where demonstration was taking place a while ago. Angry men are running after a young woman in chaddar while a few other men try to shield her. There are still some women at the Square, passionately arguing against the counter-demonstration.

Who are these men, I ask a young girl. “They are thugs, could be Mubarak´s secret police agents who want to create chaos, some are Salafis.”

A young, beautiful girl nearby catches my eye. Calm, with a smile on her face, she is holding the leaflet distributed by the Women Coalition. Is she not scared, I am wondering. Danail Gharabai is convinced that Egyptian women will go on fighting for their rights. After talking to this woman I become convinced that Egyptian women cannot be scared away.

How do you feel? Are you upset the way events took an ugly turn today?

“It was expected. We still live under a patriarchy. There is long hard struggle ahead. But counter-demonstrations and tyranny we saw today, will not silence us. We have been empowered by the revolution. The revolution has strengthened our resolve to fight for our rights. We are strong now.

We witnessed a lot of debate and screaming here. What does this attack means for women movement ?

It is always good to have debates. This is just the beginning of a women movement. But every feminist movement has been gone through such phases.

Are you not disappointed at all?

Nothing can disappoint me.

Nothing can stop revolutions daughters?

No , nothing!

I could not hold back my tears. I remembered a day like this in Tehran, Women´s Day 1980 and the way my generation of women acted when we were her age. I hugged the revolution’s daughter. I wasn’t upset at Egypt anymore. She is Egypt.

My mobile is ringing. Hibaaq Osman, a women rights activist, is calling. Hibaaq heard about the attack and was urging us to leave the Square.

“Immediately leave the place,” she screamed.

“There are still women here,” I replied.

”Just leave the place, it´s not safe” she shouts.

The day after I met some of the organisers of the Women´s Day March. They were all upset and almost shocked as if they did not expect all this.

Hibaaq Osman, from women´s organisation Karama CEO, said women learned a lot from March 8 demonstration. “We learnt that women’s movements need to be vigilant, mobilize even greater numbers, and finally, we learnt that women’s groups need better security provisions when operating in public. Women need a safe space to voice their opinions, assemble and chart their political future”, she thought.

Afaf El Sayyed, writer and feminist who stayed at the Tehreer with her daughter until the Mubarak’s minute on throne, told me that it was a miscalculation on the organiser’s part.

“ We should have worked more and mobilised better. It was the thugs who attacked us. But I told my daughter and my students that we should not leave the scene and not to give them the satisfaction of victory over us,” she said.

Alaa Shukrallah, a left activist said, told me that both her wife and daughter went to the demonstration.

“The March 8 organisers didn´t ask the political organisations or any other organisation to join them and support them. And we thought they wanted to do this on their own. So we stayed away. But it is a shame that it went so wrong,” he said.

(A short version of this report has also appeared in Swedish magazine Feministisk Perspektiv)

(Pictures by Sholeh Irani)


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