Remember the ladies!

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photo credit: Ben Curtis

Some have asked where the Egyptian women are, since most of the protest photos are of men. It's a valid question. There have definitely been gendered uprisings: either men fighting for a change that would explicitly put women down, or, more often, uprisings in which women were told to table their concerns AS women — "just until the revolution comes!" …and then, conveniently, the men who take over never get around to that.

This is NOT what's happening in Egypt right now. There are women of all ages and classes on the streets as we speak. It's true that they're outnumbered by men, but that's not because they support Mubarak. Of course there may be individual women who support Mubarak, just as there may be individual men who do, but this is not a case of men going out and demanding something that women hate but are powerless to stop. The vast majority of Egyptians, male and female, want revolution very badly.

I'm not in Egypt now, but I've lived there, and if I had to guess why there are more men than women, I would say it's a matter of safety. As an American I was always surprised at how convinced Egyptians were that "barra" ("outside") was a dangerous place, despite the fact that Egypt is probably one of the safest countries in the world. Street harassment is ubiquitous, but violent crime is extremely rare. Nevertheless, I was constantly being warned that I should not walk alone, should not take a taxi alone, should not live in or even visit this neighborhood or that neighborhood, etc. Even a knock on the door was treated with alarm. I can't tell you how many times I would visit someone, there would be an unexpected knock, and then this ritual of shouting "meen? MEEN?" ("WHO?") before anyone would open their giant, thrice-deadbolted door. And this was AFTER the visitor had been let upstairs by the nosy doorkeeper downstairs. Men, too, are conscious of this kind of stranger danger, but women even more so.

So now you have a situation where people REALLY ARE being shot point blank on the streets. What's amazing is not that so many women are staying indoors, but that so many are going out despite the risk.

If Mubarak does leave, women AS women may have new concerns. Would the new government protect their rights? Would their situation improve or worsen? But even if that happens, it's important to know that Egypt has been through this before. In the revolution that ended British occupation — which older women will still remember, and younger women will have read about and heard about from their mothers and aunties and grandmothers — the Egyptian feminist movement (by that time 60 years in the making) had to fight for a place at the table. There were victories and setbacks with that, but these are not new questions.

Even in the worst-case-for-women-scenario, where the Islamists take over, it's difficult to imagine that they would fare as badly as women in Iran, for various reasons having more to do with the history of class politics in those two countries than anything to do with feminism. Egypt would certainly not look like Afghanistan. (I feel stupid even pointing that out, but it is something I've heard: "They'll all have to around wearing those bedsheets and never go to school!")

None of this is meant to downplay sexism, which is alive and well in Egyptian culture, and, sometimes, in Egyptian law. (For example, there are gendered aspects to divorce and custody laws, only men are drafted, and citizenship comes through the father.) But at the moment these are not issues at the forefront of people's minds. The issues right now are poverty, unemployment, the lack of a free press, government corruption, and state-sanctioned torture. These issues affect men and women alike.

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