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Egypt women stand for equality in the square

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Egyptians packed Cairo's Tahrir Square on Friday to mark the fall of longtime leader Hosni Mubarak a week ago, and to maintain pressure on the new military rulers to steer the country toward democratic reforms. (Feb. 18)

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Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, February 18, 2011; 10:46 PM

CAIRO - Women think as differently as they dress here, but they have emerged from the barricades agreeing on one thing: This is their moment in history, and they cannot afford to lose it.

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During 18 days of demonstrating for freedom and democracy, Egyptian men and women walked into Tahrir Square separate and unequal, divided by gender as they passed through checkpoints. Men were scrutinized by men, and women had their bags and person searched by other women. There were several lines of men to every one for the fewer numbers of women.

Beyond the checkpoints, distinctions vanished and they stood side by side, defying the police, challenging the government, one and the same before the thugs throwing rocks and molotov cocktails. They died next to men and did not falter, steadfast for freedom and democracy.

Now, as they leave the square behind them, they want to use the strength they revealed to address long-standing inequities, to make sure women have the equality in day-to-day life that they earned in Tahrir Square.

"It was amazing to see men and women together when we took to the streets," said Marwa Faroak, a political activist. "A lot of people were saying Tahrir Square was the future of Egypt, men and women equal, fighting for freedom. And now we have to translate this into action and change."

Soha Abdelaty, deputy director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, said Egyptians are building a new country, and women must be at the forefront so they can be effective advocates for their interests. She is optimistic but not yet ready to predict that women will indeed achieve more rights.

"There's a long way to go," she said.

Women are far better off in Egypt than some parts of the Arab world. There are no religious police enforcing dress codes as in Iran, or prohibitions against driving as in Saudi Arabia. But Egyptian women are greatly underrepresented in public life and inferior to men before the law. They hold cabinet posts, but no judgeships. They are members of parliament, but have few seats. They occupy many professions, but not all.

Divorces are difficult to obtain and favor men, as do property rights. Women are encouraged to marry and have children early: The legal age of marriage was only recently raised from 16 to 18.

And, every day as they walk down the street, they are reminded of their low status - until Tahrir Square. Egyptian women are sexually harassed to an astonishing degree, groped, ogled, followed by catcalls, behavior that no law forbids. In a 2008 survey, the Egyptian Center for Women's Rights in Cairo found that 83 percent of Egyptian women and 98 percent of foreign women had been harassed at some point.

Though the American television reporter Lara Logan was beaten and sexually assaulted as pro-Mubarak forces whipped up anti-American and anti-journalist frenzy in Tahrir Square, that attack was the brutal exception. Egyptian women who were in the square say they were treated with a tolerance they hardly expected. Woman after woman marveled at that.

"One of the things that gave me an incredible sense of wonder was how safe I felt," Faroak said. "I spent the night there, with all kinds of different people, and Tahrir Square became safer than anywhere else for a woman to be."


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