It was almost one hundred years ago that Egyptian women decided to break their chains and took to the streets in defiance of tyranny.
On 16 March 1919, 300 Egyptian women led by prominent feminist Hoda Shaarawi took part for the first time in a protest march against the British occupation of Egypt. The march, which left five women dead, made history, for it marked the point that women stood firm for what they believed in, even when facing death.
Four years later, Shaarawi called for the establishment of the first women’s society in Egypt, the Egyptian Feminist Union, which went on to fight for women having equal political, social and educational rights with men and worked to amend the laws governing marital rights.
Shaarawi was an Egyptian feminist and nationalist who established numerous organisations dedicated to women’s rights and is today considered one of the founders of the women’s movement in Egypt.
Thanks in part to her work, in 1928 Cairo University received its first batch of female students. And on 16 March 1956, Egyptian women were finally granted the right to vote by virtue of the new constitution issued in the same year. It is thanks to this history of struggle and perseverance that women now hold high positions in Egypt and enjoy a better social status.
However, more is needed. Today, as women celebrate almost one hundred years of struggle against unfair laws and social constraints, new questions come to mind. Have women in Egypt really achieved what they set out to achieve? Have they finally left behind suffocating social constraints? How far has society accepted the gains women have made? And where does a woman’s strength in Egypt come from and what forms her best support system?
Speaking for myself, I owe much of what I have achieved to my mother, my first mentor, role model and best friend. When I was a child, she taught me how to stand up and face challenges bravely and never give up. She impressed on me the importance of education as a means of enlightenment and hence of independence.
Our main priority and goal in life, she said, should be directed to learning how to be self-sufficient and accepting who we are and what we stand for. “Before blaming others for not accepting who you are, you need to accept yourself and be your own best ally,” my mother said.
However, in a sometimes judgemental community like ours, it takes courage to stand up for what you believe in and never give up on who you wish to be. In order for this to be achieved, there is a need for a system that guarantees rights and freedoms. This has yet to be attained.
While fighting for political rights is crucial, so is breaking social constraints and unfair stereotyping. A woman today can still be judged by what she wears and by her marital status. Divorce is still a stigma for many women, and in many cases the blame falls on the woman for somehow failing to keep her marriage intact.
Women are expected to find their salvation in the shadow of a man, be it a father, brother or husband. A woman is held responsible for mistakes carried out by men. Double standards are rife, making many wonder whether the norms governing society are there as a result of principle, or whether they are there for people to follow like a flock of sheep.
Despite the many stories of successful women who have stood their ground, there are others of the downtrodden and frustrated who have lost hope in the ability of the system to safeguard their rights and promise a better tomorrow. The burdens of women are still many, for whether single or married, and no matter how old they are, there is always a challenge to stand up to.
Some women are not interested in the issue of rights. They were brought up to accept living in the shadow of a man, even when they could be independent and be the main breadwinners of the family. They were raised to believe that comfort lies in compliance. Other women choose to stand up for their rights and fight for their beliefs. They are prepared to talk the talk and walk the walk even if it means being out of the mainstream.
Whether one belongs to the first type or the second type of woman, the fact remains that when push comes to shove it is women who really stand up for each other and at times of need and crisis somehow manage to form the best support system known to humanity. Women have the ability to accommodate each other’s needs, provide all sorts of help to make one another’s life smoother, and give the best moral and emotional support.
I have personally witnessed several examples of women’s support groups, whether among friends, colleagues, or even through the Internet. Thanks to these groups and their survival instinct, women know how to reach out for help and find the kind of support they need. The little help, if any, provided by the system creates a kind of challenge and the will to survive and empower one another. While feminist movements work to pass laws that provide better life-chances and rights for women, many women have formed their own parallel codes of conduct in handling their daily concerns.
Friends accept us the way we are. They share our sorrows and happy moments and our failures and success. Three years ago one of my best friends lost her battle with cancer, though she fought until the last moment. The mother of two lovely daughters, she continued to look after them despite her fierce battle and pains. She remained cheerful and hopeful to the last breath.
Together we are strong
Her ordeal united our group of friends from different walks in life. A designer by profession, Rania always had something special to give to her friends. Her gifts were personalised and always held out a message of hope. As she felt her illness reaching its end, she designed her masterpiece, a gift to us that held the message she wished us to keep, in the shape of a silver bracelet bearing the words “together we are strong”.
Her gift held out a message and a wish. It was a message of gratitude for the support she felt she had received from her friends being around her and a wish that they would remain doing so for each other forever.
May your soul rest in peace, my dear friend, and may those women who are still struggling for survival realise the strength they have within themselves in the hope that one day the system might be strong enough to stand up for their rights.