Explainer: Women, Headscarves, and Protesters on Egypt’s Streets
The thousands of women who took to Cairo’s streets on Tuesday, marching to protest against Egyptian soldiers who tore women’s clothes off—specifically, their abaya, a symbol of modesty and piety–dragged, and beat them during violent demonstrations in Tahrir Square last weekend, have made history. In particular, one image of a woman being dragged by three soldiers, one of whom has his boot raised above her abdomen, with her abaya torn open to reveal a blue bra, has become the symbol of Saturday’s violence against women. Women played a significant role in the protests in Tahrir Square last spring that resulted in the ousting of Egypt’s former president, Hosni Mubarak, but have since been less visible in public protests there. According to the New York Times, historians have called Tuesday’s event the “biggest women’s demonstration in modern Egyptian history,” rivaling a 1919 march against British colonialism.
The Cairo-based blog Bikyamasr reports that “Egyptian Sheikh Khaled el-Gendy questioned why the woman who was stripped by soldiers was where she was in the first place, in comments on the al-Qahira al-Youm news program on December 19 and asked the audience to ask questions before calling for an apology from the military.” Sheikh el-Gendy reportedly said that he condemned the violence against the women, but the more important question at hand was “who let her out in the street and why she was there.” The Sheikh said that he believes Islamic Sharia to be the way forward for Egypt—perhaps implying that a world where women are kept in the domestic sphere would be preferable to one where they are allowed to protest publicly.
But the women protesting on Tuesday would likely tell the Sheikh that, for them, an Islamic society and democratic freedom are not incompatible. As David Kirkpatrick wrote for the Times, “[T]he march was hardly dominated by secular liberals. It contained a broad spectrum of Egyptian women, including homemakers demonstrating for the first time and young mothers carrying babies, with a majority in traditional Muslim head scarves and a few in face-covering veils.” Westerners, who value the ability to dress any way we like, may see some contradictions between living a religious life and demanding freedom. But the women marching in the streets of Cairo on Tuesday, while wearing headscarves, showed the world that they can be practicing Muslims while fighting for their right to live in a free and just democracy.
Feminism has been strong in Egypt in ways that, to Westerners, may not actually look like feminism. The cultural anthropologist Saba Mahmood has documented the women’s Islamic revival in Cairo, which began in the late 1990s, when women began forming Koran-reading groups, wearing face-covering veils in greater numbers, and professing their newfound Islamic piety. Feminism in the West is normally not equated with increased religiosity, and Islam in particular is considered a patriarchal religion. But in Cairo’s Islamic revival, women were not just falling victim to a repressive system; they were actively choosing to cover themselves and study the messages of Islam. They were seeking a revolution in social values, by turning to Islam.
The colonial history of Egypt helps explain how, in Cairo’s Islamic revival, feminism there came to be associated with Islam. During British rule, Islam was portrayed as backward and pre-modern, and secularism was encouraged in its place, particularly among the Egyptian elite. The women Mahmood did her research with found that increasing their allegiance to Islam was actually empowering, because they saw it as a return to Egypt’s original, pre-colonial culture. Furthermore, reading the Koran was a way of educating themselves about the fundamentals of Islam—something that, in many Islamic cultures, only men are allowed to or culturally permitted to engage in.
This context helps explain why women in Cairo were so outraged by Saturday’s incidents. Not only were women beaten by armed soldiers—clearly a violation of civilians’ rights to peacefully protest and an egregious abuse of state power in any case—but when soldiers tore off women’s headcoverings and bared their bodies, these women were furthermore attacked in a religious way. The piety they find important was publicly de-valued by the soldiers. The Times quotes women who protested on Tuesday saying, “I am here because of our girls who were stripped in the street,” and that men couldn’t be relied on to help women “cover [their] flesh,” so they were taking it upon themselves to do it.
What’s extraordinary about the women’s march on Tuesday is its public nature. In Islamic societies, women are generally not encouraged to participate in public life at any level—whether gathering in the streets, or holding electoral office. Very few women won parliamentary office in Egypt’s recent elections. The fact that women took to the streets by the thousands to protest the way soldiers treated female protesters is a remarkable sign that Egyptian women are defining their own version of feminism—and surely seeking their own political freedom, too.