Tuesday,12 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1135, 14 - 20 February
Tuesday,12 December, 2017
Issue 1135, 14 - 20 February

Ahram Weekly

Women’s revolution and Tahrir memoirs

Tahia Abdel Nasser on women and protest in Egypt

Women demonstrations
Women demonstrations
Al-Ahram Weekly

For nearly 100 years, Egyptian women have marched into the public sphere to demand independence side by side with men. On 16 March, 1919, nearly 300 Egyptian women of all classes, led by the first Egyptian feminist Huda Shaarawi, marched against the British occupation. In her book on the life of Huda Shaarawi, Sania Sharawi Lanfranchi describes the scene of veiled women carrying green flags with a crescent and a cross marching through the quarters of Cairo amid British troops.  Indeed, images of women in the 1919 revolution were prevalent in the wake of the 25 January Revolution in 2011. On the second anniversary of the 25 January Revolution, banners of Egypt’s early feminists and icons in Egyptian culture – Huda Shaarawi, Doria Shafik, and the Arab world’s revered singer Umm Kulthoum – fluttered in Tahrir Square.
Arabic literature has memorialised women’s involvement in revolutions that convulsed Egypt from 1919. In her famous 1960 novel Al-Bab Al-Maftuh (The Open Door), the Egyptian writer and political activist Latifa Al-Zayyat addresses women’s involvement in the national struggle throughout the 1950s, after the 1952 revolution, the evacuation of British forces, and the start of the resistance to the Tripartite Aggression by Israel, France, and Britain on Egypt in 1956. The novel opens with a conversation among a group of Egyptians from different social and educational levels about an anti-British demonstration in Ismailiyya Square (later renamed Tahrir Square). On 21 February 1946, men talk fervently on the street about the battle of 1946, which one of the interlocutors notes is a new stage in the national struggle, illustrating the statement with the observation, “Even the women came out of their houses. There were women all over the place in Bab Al-Sha‘riya.” At 17, Layla, a young middle-class girl, joins a procession of students from Khedive Ismail School after slogans are exchanged between the boys at her school gates and the girls in school. In the procession, the boys clear a way for the girls who take the lead. During the march, Layla feels a sense of belonging: “Everything around her was propelling her forward, everything, everyone, surrounding her, embracing her, protecting her.” At the end of the novel, in which her liberation develops along a course parallel to the national struggle for independence, Layla joins the popular resistance with a fellow political activist in Port Said.
In Al-Zayyat’s 1990s memoir Hamlat taftish: awraq shakhsiyya (The Search: Personal Papers), the narrator remembers herself as a young university student in 1942 in the national movement at Fuad I (now Cairo) University, where she develops through her political commitment. She is swept in the 1940s national student movement, in which she leads demonstrations and experiences opposition from the Muslim Brotherhood. Written in the 1970s and 1980s, and published in 1992, her memoir revisits experiences from 1940s Egypt under the British Occupation up to her prison experience in 1981; her life is shaped by the writer’s journey through political activism and national commitment. In her memoir, she  also affirms the value of the broader national struggle for the new Egyptian woman, for whom participation in the national struggle is a path towards liberation.  
In 21st century Egypt, the Tahrir memoir resumed a tradition that stretched back over half a century of memoirs by Egyptian women. In March 2012, the writer and political activist Mona Prince published her Tahrir memoir of the first 18 days Ismi Thawra (My Name Is Revolution). The memoir is a tribute not only to women’s involvement in the revolution in Tahrir, but to the humanity and resilience of men and women who had commenced the journey to Tahrir on 25 January. Each chapter in her memoir recounts events in Tahrir Square in the period from Tuesday, 25 January, when the narrator rides the bus from the Shubra demonstration to Tahrir Square to Friday, 11 February 2011 when Mubarak is finally toppled. The title of the memoir introduces the metaphor of the revolution as woman and the way in which the narrator defines herself and is transformed by the revolution. Her name is thawra (revolution), and we know that she has been reborn and renamed in Tahrir, which we can compare with her predecessor, Al-Zayyat, who saw personal liberation through political freedom.  
During the 18 days in Tahrir Square, when state-sponsored violence against the protestors was prevalent, there were many scenes of solidarity between protestors. In the prologue, the narrator tells us that she has no political orientation or religious ideology and that she only upholds freedom of expression. Throughout the 18 days, the narrator is in the heart of Tahrir Square with many other men and women who found that they shared the demand for “bread, freedom, and social justice” against the state’s oppression, and celebrated a newfound solidarity in a new state within the borders of Tahrir Square.    
During the violent clashes on 28 January 2011, “The Friday of Rage,” between Central Security Forces and demonstrators in Tahrir Square, the narrator recreates the powerful scene of the Battle of Qasr Al-Nil Bridge, where thousands of protesters had marched from all over Cairo, shouting “The people want the downfall of the regime!”: “They open the Square and become one with thousands charging from downtown and Abdel-Moneim Riyad Square.” In the violence of some of the scenes, recreated with verisimilitude and fluidity, fall and renewal are observed and lived. Throughout the memoir, Tahrir Square and downtown Cairo become centres of resistance to state authority, where the narrator joins marches, sit-ins and checkpoints. In peace and clashes, the narrator travels freely across Tahrir Square, helped and supported by fellow activists and downtown residents, especially when state thugs descend on them to spread terror.
Tahrir reveals the character of the “heroes,” the young revolutionaries struggling against state-enforced brutality. When the camels enter the square, men pull the narrator away from their path. When one man orders her away from the square, as they prepare to arm themselves with bricks against the attacks by thugs, another man says, “Yes, we are all equals. Let them gather bricks.”  During the Battle of the Camel, the protestors organise themselves, create lines and move forward to protect the square. The Tahrir memoir includes all the discourses that had circulated in the square: revolutionary language, conversations that remind us of the opening of Al-Zayyat’s The Open Door, and regime rhetoric. Written in colloquial Egyptian and standard Arabic, the narrative threads Tunisian-inspired slogans in standard Arabic, conversations among the revolutionaries, Mubarak’s speeches, and songs of the revolutionary Sheikh Imam into the memoir, which becomes a collaborative work that archives a significant moment in Egyptian history in which men and women of all classes found a common struggle. During the Week of Steadfastness, a million-person march is staged in the square, and the narrator, along with many other protestors, celebrates the demise of the regime.  
In the Tahrir celebrations on 11 February 2011, the narrator congratulates her compatriots and dances to songs in the square. Before Mubarak’s final speech, she and many protesters had posed by the tanks that had rolled into the square: “Everyone embraces one another and dances. . . everyone runs towards the square. . . and some climb up to the tanks and pose for pictures.” At the time of the appearance of the Tahrir memoir, murals on the the walls of Mohamed Mahmoud Stree and throughout Cairo reified the involvement of women in the revolution. We could see murals of women carrying gas tanks, stencils of women bearing a flag with the slogan “Freedom is not a right; freedom is a duty,” street art of the activist Samira Ibrahim above an army of soldiers, graffiti of women, images of Umm Kulthoum, and other murals of ancient Egyptian-inspired scenes of marching women and women climbing the ladder of revolution, and funeral processions of women.
Last Friday, an image of the Tunisian opposition leader Chokri Belaid’s widow Basma Khalfaoui, marching in her husband’s funeral was raised in tribute to the enduring strength of women and as a statement of national mourning. We can read against these murals and images a recent history of women’s activism in Tahrir memoirs in which a revolution without women is unimaginable. Now as we read and reread Prince’s memorable Tahrir memoir and think of the forces that threaten women’s presence in Tahrir Square, against which a procession was staged last Wednesday, we are reminded of an early moment when women could move freely in the square, which became a symbol of resistance and an inspiration to movements throughout the world. Women’s revolutionary energy has inspired the revolution for two years and, as long as there is revolution, women will march with men and demand freedom and justice for all.

The writer is visiting assistant professor of English and comparative literature at the American University in Cairo.

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