What is the way forward for women’s struggle for liberation?
Women in Egypt came out into struggle even before the revolution broke out and were present and active in it at every stage, fighting like men, for a change in their social and economic conditions. Among the Mahalla Textile workers who led the way in the struggle for better pay, and among the more advanced struggles of workers demanding workers’ management of production, women were in the leadership.
Masses of women came out in the revolution and showed heroic courage in the face of militias, thugs, repressive security and other reactionary forces. Revolutionary women in Egypt have been tortured and killed in the fight against repression and for emancipation. Egyptian women have been among the hundreds of martyrs of the revolution with their pictures being proudly put up by activists all over the internet and the press.
But today, Tahrir Square the focal point of the revolution, is no longer the safe and collectively owned and space for organizing the revolution or for discussing issues related to liberation of the masses, not least for women. Sexual violence and sex attacks on women demonstrators in Egypt have been increasingly reported in the last few weeks and months. During the week of the second anniversary of 25th January, over 20 reports were made about women being sexually harassed and raped in Tahrir Square in the middle of mass protests.
Two years on from the revolution women in Egypt are four times more likely to be unemployed than men. While girls in Egypt are only slightly less likely to go to primary school than boys, literacy levels are at 77% and much lower among women than men. This is an illustration of the reality facing women in society as a whole and not just in one sector, with most women working in the home, taking care of children and elderly family members, and increasingly doing this alongside informal low-paid work.
Many sex attacks on women protestors have had common features such as groups of dozens of men, and up to 100 in some cases, systematically targeting and attacking female protestors sometimes so brutally that women have been hospitalized. Horrific pictures and films on Youtube and Facebook have triggered huge anger and mass condemnations by activists around the world, not the least in Arab countries.
Sex attacks on protestors in Egypt are not new methods but have been previously used by the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) which ordered soldiers to conduct virginity tests and attack women at the protests. Male protestors were then assaulted too, with incidents during riots in which men were physically and sexually assaulted in public by riot police, the military or civilian men infiltrating the protests
Today, under the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and increased tensions between right-wing Islamists and the opposition, women are coming increasingly under attack and this is being used to derail the revolution and allow its take-over by the reactionary forces and far-right Islamists
Journalists and reporters who went out to speak to protestors about the recent attacks have reported that a high number of young men, hanging around on the squares, were making sexist comments such as “what do you expect?” and “if a woman dresses in tight clothes she can only blame herself”. But these are not ideas dropping from the sky. Sexism has been reinforced and enhanced by continuous speeches made by Islamist clerics and leaders who are on the one hand diverting attention from the real bread and butter issues facing the masses of workers in Egypt, and on the other hand trying to persecute female and male opponents of their rule.
The fear of rapes and sexual attacks on demonstrators has not only spread among women but even men who have been helpless in the face of these attacks taking place even in the presence of male co-protestors. There have been reports of men and women forming a line around their protests in order to ensure that no attacks can succeed in singling out women from the crowd. But there have also been reports of both men and women choosing not to go on protests anymore as a result of the general chaos in the movement, not the least the attacks on women which created a tipping point for a layer of activists already turned off by the chaotic developments and increased violence on protests.
But a number of women from across the Arab world, many of whom have been inspired by and played leading roles in the uprisings and protests of the “Arab Spring”, have expressed a willingness to build a movement for women’s liberation. One of those groups called “Uprising of Women in the Arab World”, although established on Facebook long before these reports, has grown enormously as a result of the latest attacks as it has become a platform for women speaking out against sexism, gender-based violence, sexual harassment, rape and forced marriage and the general oppression of women.
As many women activists and socialists have pointed out, and need to keep explaining, sexism, although on the rise, has always been one of the features of class society. The increase in reports today, as well as the brutality of such attacks in public, is a result of many factors coming together, including right-wing political Islam coming to power and giving a green light to reactionary and sexist ideas to be expressed openly, and the use of sexism to split the movement along gender lines to intimidate protestors.
Another important factor behind these attacks is the lack of security in the strong-holds of the revolution and in the areas where security forces have been out of sight, in the midst of chaos created by MB members to try to disperse opposition gatherings. These areas and this conscious measure have created a breeding ground for sexist comments and attacks, with women becoming more exposed to such intimidation.
In some cases they have turned to individual anarchistic methods for protection and revenge. But this is a limited way of fighting back. Today, sexism is allowed to grow among a layer of workers and youth turning to reactionary ideas as a result of unemployment and/or being reliant on reactionary leaders and forces to make a living. The militias, often a breeding ground for sexist ideas, need to be fought with a class programme where women can show by example that their struggle for liberation is a struggle against unemployment and exploitation too.
A collective fight against sexism in society is needed. There is an urgent need for an organized mass workers’ alternative where women workers and female activists can collectively, alongside male workers and activists, organize defense committees, and fight on a programme to end sexism and all types of oppression and exploitation. This should include a fight for decent education, health care, housing, well paid jobs, safe public transport and services – well-lit streets and public places, accountable security forces and trained staff to deal with victims of rape and discrimination, family planning and protection from forced marriages, laws against rape and sexism, shelter and alternative jobs for women forced into prostitution, the right to custody, etc. Such a programme would attract and appeal to the poor and unemployed and act as a pole of attraction away from the reactionary leaders who use sexism as another tool of class oppression.
A mass workers’ movement and a mass workers’ party needs to be built from below, in the workplaces as well as in the communities, where independent unions, workers’ committees and popular committees are built, with women workers and revolutionary women at the forefront putting forward a strategy capable of winning over the masses of workers, youth, the poor and all the oppressed to the fight for liberation from all types of oppression, including sexism, for social justice and for democratic socialism.