When the revolutionary momentum in North Africa erupted onto the world stage at the start of January 2011, the world was exposed to a new force in international politics. This force was sustained by the energy and power of the grassroots women and youths of Africa.
We want to use the 100th anniversary of the commemoration of International Women’s Day to salute the women who emerged in the leadership of this revolution that is still under way. In particular, it is important to salute women such as Amal Sharaf and Asmaa Mahfouz of the April 6 Youth Movement of Egypt, who showed exemplary leadership in challenging the much-dreaded Mubarak regime. These women are part of a new generation of revolutionaries who are fighting to shift the power in society from patriarchs and capitalists to working women and men. African peoples throughout the world have embraced the celebration of International Women’s Day, even though at the inception of this celebration, people of African descent were discriminated against in the mainstream women’s movement. We salute those women from Egypt along with the women who call for investment in caring instead of killing.
Tunisia’s Mohammed Bouzazi entered the annals of revolutionary martyrs when he sacrificed himself to rally the youths in Tunisia to stand up and fight. The Tunisian example gave confidence to youths all across Africa and the Middle East. But it is the outstanding leadership of Egypt’s women, especially Asmaa Mahfouz, that is being highlighted today. Asmaa Mahfouz is a young revolutionary who was one of the founders of the April 6 Youth Movement. This movement was formed by young Egyptian revolutionaries, including Ahmed Maher and Amal Sharaf, in 2008 to support the workers in the industrial city of El-Mahalla who were on strike for better working conditions, better wages and who were protesting rising food prices. The April 6 Movement used the tools of social media and brought new ideas about the politics of inclusion as well as new ideas about political organising to the forefront of Egyptian politics. Though mainly from the educated classes of the Facebook generation, this group of men and women struggled to translate online activism into real mobilisation of humans to stand up for their rights. Esam al-Amin, in his brilliant analysis of the implications of the Egyptian revolution, wrote that, ‘[a]s the demonstrations continued, every day broke new ground. It started with the educated youth, both middle class and affluent. They were soon joined by the oppressed and uneducated poor. Within a few days, the protests swelled to include all segments of society, including judges, lawyers, doctors, engineers, journalists, artists, civil servants, workers, farmers, day laborers, students, home makers, the underclass and the unemployed.’
When I was recently in Kenya grounding with grassroots activists from Bunge la Wananchi, I urged them to study carefully the lessons of the Egyptian process and to grasp the tactics and strategies of that revolutionary struggle. I recommended to them the writings of Esam al-Amin, who has consistently been elaborating to the world the unique lessons of this Egyptian revolution. His most recent input on ‘When Egypt’s revolution was at the crossroads’ again shed light on the simple but clear demands of those who moved an uprising to the stage of a popular revolution. He clearly acknowledged that, ‘[i]ndeed the transformation from a protest to an uprising to a successful revolution was remarkable. But the ultimate triumph of Egypt’s revolution was not inevitable. At different junctures of the eighteen momentous days the revolution could have been aborted or taken a completely different turn.’
It is now internationally recognised that Asmaa Mahfouz played a crucial role not only within the April 6 Youth Movement but also by her own initiative to post the historic 18 January YouTube video calling on Egyptians to come out to Tahrir Square on 25 January 2011. In her outline of the 12 decisive moments that played a crucial role in maintaining the momentum of the revolution, Asmaa’s steadfastness, courage and initiative exposed to the world the new politics that is awaiting the world in this revolutionary moment.
Before recording the inspiring video, Asmaa had gone to Tahrir Square as a lone soldier with the hope of inspiring an uprising against the Mubarak regime. In the video, she chastised the people for not mustering the bravery to come out en masse and join her in Tahrir. She implored young people not to sacrifice themselves by self-immolation, but to stand up to fight the regime. In this call she said inter alia:
‘I posted that I, a girl, am going down to Tahrir Square and I will stand alone. And I will hold up a banner, perhaps people will show some honour. I even wrote my number, so maybe people will come down with me. No one came except three guys! Three guys and three armoured cars of riot police! And tens of hired thugs and officers came to terrorise us.’
Asmaa was challenging the Egyptian people to demand their honour and human dignity from a corrupt and brutal government that had ruled the country with an iron fist under emergency laws for over three decades. She implored her compatriots to head to Tahrir Square on 25 January to reclaim their future and their dignity. She said:
‘I am making this video to give you one simple message. We want to go down to Tahrir Square on January 25th. If we still have honour, and want to live in dignity on this land we have to go down (to Tahrir Square) on January 25th. We’ll go down and demand our rights, our fundamental human rights.
‘I am going down on January 25th, and from now till then, I am going to distribute fliers in the street everyday. I will not set myself on fire! If the security forces want to set me on fire let them come and do it. If you think yourself a man, come with me on January 25th.’
It is now history that the call of this young woman propelled a revolutionary moment that brought down the regime in Egypt. Al-Amin properly located the leadership of women such as Asmaa Mahfouz in his analysis when he noted that Egypt ‘is a largely patriarchal society not used to having women, especially young females, leading any group or organization, let alone a political movement.’ Women such as Asmaa Mahfouz are not unique in Africa and throughout the contours of the popular revolution Nawal El Saadawi and other veteran freedom fighters were bringing their experiences of anti-dictatorial and anti-sexist struggles to this revolutionary process. Asmaa was well aware of the patriarchal inclination of her society and the limitations of the patriarchal model of liberation when she asserted:
‘Whoever says women shouldn’t go to protests because they will get beaten, let him have some honour and manhood and come with me on January 25th… Sitting at home and just following us on news or Facebook leads to our humiliation, leads to my own humiliation…
‘If you have honour and dignity as a man, come! Come and protect me and other girls in the protest. If you stay at home, then you deserve all that’s being done to you. And you will be guilty before your nation and your people. And you will be responsible for what happens to us on the street while you sit at home. Go down on the street, send SMS, post it on the ‘net, make people aware.
‘Never say there’s no hope! Hope disappears only when you say there’s no hope. So long you come down with us, there will be hope. Don’t be afraid of the government, fear none but God!
‘Don’t think you can be safe anymore! None of us are! Come down with us and demand your rights, my rights, your family’s rights.
‘I am going down on January 25th, and I will say “No” to corruption. “No” to this regime.’
Asmaa was not only instrumental to sparking the Egyptian revolution, she and other women played critical roles in the decisive moments that guaranteed the victory of the people. They paid a heavy sacrifice, bearing the brunt of at least 10 per cent of the casualties in the first week. The women gave their time, their passion and their inspiration for the revolution.
Amal Sharaf was another one of the key organisers of the Egypt protest. She is an English teacher and co-founder of the April 6 Youth Movement. According to Amal, she has two daughters: her 10-year-old biological daughter and the April 6 Youth Movement. In an interview, it was revealed that 36-year-old Amal Sharaf worked round the clock along with her team of 10 persons from a ‘control room’ in Cairo to make sure that the protests were peaceful and persistent. Amal was arrested alongside other colleagues when security forces raided their office.
Patriarchy has historically oppressed women so that women’s roles in past revolutions and societal transformation were relegated to the footnotes of history. Just as in this revolution in Egypt, women have played frontline roles in the liberation of many societies from the shackles of colonialism and all forms of oppression, only for the male folks to turn to the oppression of women in the supposedly liberated societies.
Only one day in a year is dedicated to the celebration of women’s achievements globally. However, the commemoration of International Women’s Day at this moment offers us an opportunity to reflect on and support the efforts of women around the world to liberate themselves and to oppose a capitalist system that passes the heaviest burden of care onto women. When Asmaa chastised the critiques of women protesters to ‘have some honour and manhood’, it was a statement that seeks to redefine the honour of manhood in relation to standing up to the masculinists in society who support the dehumanisation and exploitation of women. This is a major statement about human rights and the transformation of gender relations in the 21st century.
On this International Women’s Day, I want to salute the revolutionary women all over Africa who are standing up for peace and justice. As I was writing this piece, news came through of the killing of unarmed women in Côte d’Ivoire, just as Egyptian women who were mounting an International Women’s Day rally in Tahrir Square were heckled by some men. These experiences are reminders of the uphill struggles that are still ahead to achieve the goals of the emancipation of women and the humanisation of the male. As my sister Ifi Amadiume rightly observed in her comments on the attack on the women in Tahrir Square, ‘Egyptian women are now saying that they are the deciding factor for the future of women’s rights for the next decade.’ She notes that the struggle of the women was not only for their rights but also in a context where ‘building rudimentary democratic institutions from the bottom up’ will be an uphill task.
In Egypt, the contours of the revolutionary moment thus far reflect a high level of planning, tenacity, organisation and inclusiveness that transcends gender and religion. But the gains of the revolution are being threatened by counter-revolution manifest in the stirring-up of religious differences and what seems like an attempt to leave women out of the gains of a post-Mubarak reconstruction. According to Al Jazeera, there are ‘[f]ears that the condition of Egyptian women could return to “normal” after the uprising appears legitimate. After all, there have been several cases in history of uprisings that prove that women can be used in a revolution and then told “thank you, you can go back home.”’ The revolutionary process will face counter-revolutionaries just as the women faced sexism and harassment in ‘liberation square’ on International Women’s Day. These experiences further point to the reality that revolutionary struggles are protracted struggles and the revolutionary women must continue to command the revolutionary upper-ground that they commanded prior to and during the 18 days that shook the world.
Throughout the pan-African world, the struggles for reproductive rights along with the struggles for basic integrity as human beings have once again propelled women to the front of the African liberation struggles. On this International Women’s Day, I want to salute the revolutionary women all over Africa who are standing up for peace and justice. They are carrying forth the historic torch that will light up humanity against all forms of oppression and deformed masculinity.
BROUGHT TO YOU BY PAMBAZUKA NEWS, Pan-African Voices for Freedom and Justice