Egyptian Women of the Arab Spring: A Social Media Revolution (Part 3)

Discussion

What role did women play in igniting, creating and sustaining change in the January 2011 revolution in Egypt?

As detailed in the description portion of this paper, women in modern Egypt come from a long lineage of feminist, equal rights and reform advocates, despite continual opposition from autocratic or Islamist parties in a culturally patriarchal society.  In 2011, it became apparent just how important women were in pushing the revolution. Despite harassment and arrest risks, women joined the ranks of men to create the largest uprising in over 30 years (Krajeski, 2011). They blogged and were entrenched in a tech-savvy, sometimes underground, culture (Rubin, 2011). They fought arrest, wrote slogans and chants, confronted police and stood strong among the masses for the 18-day period of protest in Tahrir (Carroll, 2011).  Over 20% of the protesters in Tahrir were women – mostly young – and Facebook pages abound with photographs of women participating in the struggle (Mortada, 2011).

The movement itself was portrayed by the media as being single-minded: get Mubarak out, and usher democracy in, where new paradigms can be created (for youth, the working class, and for women). The single-mindedness – in action or in perception – does not mean women weren’t invested in bringing their rights to the cause, however. It just means the protests in Tahrir weren’t geared towards one “specific group”, according to an interview with Amal Abdel of the New Woman Foundation (Carroll, 2011).  Women were recognized as participants in a larger cause, and their voices were swallowed into the undulating collective cry of the masses.

According to an interactive interview with renown feminist thinker, activist, and former prisoner of the Mubarak regime, Nawal el-Saadawi, “there is no democracy without women” (Al Jazeera English, 2011), and it was absolutely a “women’s revolution”, despite it not being named as such by the media (Rubin, 2011). She claimed the 2011 revolution “washed away” the discriminations that were imposed by the “patriarchal, capitalist, racist” regime of Mubarak (Al Jazeera English, 2011). It is without question that women were instrumental in igniting and sustaining the revolution that began on January 25, and that women and men alike marched in a common cause for freedom, dignity, and human rights. Whether these men and women can implement women’s rights in a post-revolution society is still a question of concern for many.

What role did social media play in facilitating this movement both on and off the ground, and specifically how were women using new media to engage in the conversation and planning of the revolution?

As was detailed in the previous description section of this paper, women utilized new media outlets to engage in discourse around the revolution and to call others to action. Asmaa Mahfouz, called by some the “Leader of a Revolution”, uploaded a video to her Facebook page that did not mince words; through her viral video she provoked women and men to join her on January 25 for a “Day of Anger” (Morgan, 2011).  She pleaded a “simple message” that everyone “demand [their] fundamental human rights”; moreover, she provoked “whoever [said] women shouldn’t go to protest” to join her and “have some honor” (Jardin, 2011). This 4-minute video was the catalyst for the January 25 uprising, and is one of many examples of how new media facilitated the movement, both on and off the ground.

The other large example is the Facebook page, “We are All Khaled Said”, a fan page dedicated to the young man brutalized by police before the January 25 protests began (Facebook, 2011). Initially credited to an anonymous online activist, it was revealed weeks afterward that it was the creation of a Google executive, Wael Ghonim, who was coincidentally arrested and tortured by the state police over the course of ten days during the revolution (Kirkpatrick, Spreading revolution: an interactive timeline, 2011). Wael was heralded as a “new hero” and has been profiled in the Western media as the champion for the Revolution 2.0 in the Middle East (Kirkpatrick, Spreading revolution: an interactive timeline, 2011). His story fits nicely with the internet-activist-turned-hero narrative, but what about the women involved? Asmaa’s video is primarily mentioned on blogs and articles written (or co-written) by women, yet Wael’s story is profiled and amplified both at home and abroad by the media. Perhaps because the revolution was largely leaderless, having this particular person represent the people could be what Western media was after all along.  Wael’s hero portrayal doesn’t necessarily negate women’s role in furthering the movement (nor does it downplay their internet activism), but it certainly doesn’t help in augmenting women’s equal representation in what has become the aftermath of a people’s movement. He is hailed as a hero, but there is no heroine, so it seems; it’s not proportional. Even media coverage of women activists has been small, according to Amal Abdel of the New Woman Foundation, and so attempting a gender-filtered framework for analyzing the revolution seems quarantined to those already working within it (Carroll, 2011). The coverage recently has been limited to the harm or injustices inflicted on women in the media; the most recent report details the violent assault of a female blogger in the “second round” of protests this month (Parvaz, 2011).

Nonetheless, the role of social media is impressive, and has facilitated a people’s movement in a hyper-accelerated timeframe with very savvy activists.  Men and women utilized social media to engage in dialogue, plan protests on the ground and expose human rights violations to the international community; without the prevalent use of cell phone video, texting and real-time updates through Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, this movement may not have caught fire so quickly. In an age where information is power and spreads awareness – one can now easily see how “the other” lives – it is impossible to negate the role that media plays in shaping the new narrative of its people.  According to one study of new media in the revolution, almost 90% of Egyptians possessed a cell phone, and upwards of 33% of online activists in Egypt using Twitter were women (Islam, 2011, p. 6). No longer did the state or media elite control all information; it came from activists and civilians alike, and in waves. Raw video content showcased multi-faceted points of view, including: mobilization footage, citizen commentary, political punditry, and (very popular) “soundtracks” to the revolution (Islam, 2011, p. 22). This newly dubbed process, called “cyber-pragmatism”, helped spur nonviolent civil disobedience and ushered in a new way of galvanizing the people’s movements; furthermore, the unmasking of anonymous bloggers, starting with the video tactic of Asmaa Mahfouz, instigated the revolution even further: it helped build capacity and encouraged people to join in solidarity, since they knew they would not be alone in the fight (Graham-Felsen, 2011).

In another light, Mubarak’s attempt to stop all action by blocking the internet only pushed activists further to keep moving. The blackout (visualized below in Graphic 1A) is another way of showing how terrorizing a nation by censorship is no way of stopping people from mobilizing. In fact, it proved the opposite, as Graphic IB shows Western media joining the effort to help reconnect with Egypt during via satellite, SMS and other means of technology: proving that there are always loopholes to internet censorship (Olson, 2011).

(Graphic IA)

GraphicIA-ArabSpring

Visualizing Egypt’s Internet blackout. (2011). Mashable. Retrieved from http://mashable.com/2011/01/28/egypt-internet-graphic

(Graphic 1B)

GraphicIB-ArabSpring

Social Media and Unrest in Egypt. (2011). HootSuite. Retrieved from http://images.hootsuite.com/newsletter/unrest_egypt/HootSuite_Egypt_Infographic.pdf

Where do women fit into the new paradigm of government in Egypt, and how are they focusing on bringing women’s rights into a democratic society?

Problematizing the first two points of discussion is what brings me to the third and (for now) final question, as the possibility of augmenting and reshaping women’s roles in a new society is largely contingent upon how women are viewed through the lens of Egyptian culture. The fact that there are women protesters and activists is not new; women have been fighting for equality and gender rights for almost a century.  Moreover; new media and new faces of youth activism continue the same discourse. According to Amal Abdel, women of the post-revolution are “being ignored” (Carroll, 2011).  The question is not, “are women participating in, and important parts of, a new media-facilitated revolution?”  This question has been answered in the previous pages and is a resounding, “yes”. The issue is now tied to how they can change the system, given that they have been largely acting within it as long as women have been mobilizing.

There are setbacks to the advancements women foresaw while protesting in the street: the interim government’s Constitution referendum in March 2011 omitted women from being cabinet members. Potential political campaigners like Nawal el-Saadawi (who, while attempting to run for President of Egypt against Mubarak in 2005 out of “principle”, was harassed by the state police and ordered to stop campaigning), are subjected to the patriarchal suppression by the state with no recourse (Al Jazeera English, 2011).  Despite gains in workplace and education rights over the past century, women only constitute 20% of the labor force in Egypt, and less so in the political sector (The Economist, 2011).  The 1981 ratification of CEDAW still holds little ground, as women continue to be harassed and subjected to domestic and culturally-sanctioned acts of violence like Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) to this date (Amnesty International, 2011).  Thus, like many of the countries who have ratified CEDAW and proclaim that the rights of women are synonymous with human rights, the Egyptian stance is thinly veiled. Even the quota system in parliament has been deemed ineffective, as the newly created 64 seats went to members of the ruling party in 2011; it has since been removed to accommodate an amendment to an existing law that mandates each party to have at least one woman on its list of candidates, which has yet to prove fruitful (Amnesty International, 2011).

The recent furor and protests in late November 2011 in Tahrir invoke the frustration and rage from only ten months earlier; however, the current climate pairs the faltering military power with embryonic promises of a democratic order, as Egyptians await a fresh round of parliamentary elections.  Some women go so far to say that even if they do win in the upcoming parliamentary elections, it “won’t break Egypt’s formidable gender barriers” (Nelson, 2011). Yet, a woman, Buthayna Kamel, has emerged as the first woman in history to run for president and stands for what the activists are seeking: “freedom, diginity and social justice” (Zohney, 2011). The results of her campaign could turn around a country that has been subjected to the same patriarchal and hegemonic power structures since colonialism. The act of putting a woman in power does not necessarily equate to longstanding and systemic change, but it does represent the possibility.

The causes women need to fight now and in the transition period are multitude; they are not just political, but also aim for women’s rights to be incorporated and implemented into Egyptian culture on all levels: across class, race or religious lines. Without proper representation, however, the results of all of the organizing, mobilizing and protesting that has been a part of women’s movements over the past century will be deposited into the same narrative, as history repeats itself. Women will continue to fight in the same roundabout way without breaking the power structures that have kept them in place for centuries. According to one source, it’s more than just elections, it’s about a new paradigm (which I agree with): “nurturing high caliber female politicians” and “changing the stereotypical images of women”, both of which are not overnight successes achieved by one video blog (Zohney, 2011).  The long term, systemic changes require a new way of thinking.

A compounding problem in the reshaping of society for women’s rights in Egypt is the presence of the Muslim Brotherhood as a premier opposition party. The Muslim Brotherhood does not recognize key gender issues in society, such as FGM; its 2008 ban happened to be a result of Suzanne Mubarak’s platform during her husband’s rule (Sharma, 2011). Moreover, some women representatives of the Brotherhood go so far as to claim that the ban of FGM was a Western agenda put forth by NGOs in Egypt, and is no different than the concept of plastic surgery (Sharma, 2011). The combination of a potential Muslim Brotherhood rule and the desire to abandon all residual memory of Mubarak’s legacy (the good and the bad) could prove fatal for important women’s rights issues, in particular FGM. The impending results of the parliamentary elections will shine a light whether a path for women’s rights in Egypt will be created for the long term.

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