“Djamila Bouhired in Algeria/Huda Shaarawi in Egypt” —A slogan chanted during the International Women's Day march in Cairo, 8/3/2013
I could not leave Cairo, after a brief visit, without taking part in the International Women's Day march. The march was composed not just of women, but also of men, of young and old people who believe in the cause. They believe that women are capable of being leaders in every aspect of life; that a woman's place is at home, in the fields, in the factory, in the parliament, and in the streets. They also believe that a woman is a partner as well as a friend, a mother, a sister — and life itself.
The march from Talaat Harb Square to the High Court building was led by fifty-five feminist organizations and eleven political parties. The women walked tall, with heads held high, and a sense of pride in their womanhood. They raised a variety of banners, individual and collective, creative and profound, that highlighted the link between their rights as women and the rights of the nation. They rejected all forms of submissiveness and refused to be treated as an accessory, a commodity, a seasonal fashion. A range of generations and a diversity of banners, interwoven with the thread of freedom. Their demand is nothing less than equality; their objective is nothing short of liberty. They raised their voices in flagrant defiance of the dominant discourse. They asserted that their thundering voice is the revolution, that the revolution is taking place on their very shoulders.
Mothers with their daughters, whole families, sheikhs and priests, young women and older pioneers, Egyptians and Arabs , a resistance that spanned over generations, marched demanding freedom and equal rights in a country where the rule of law applies to all, and which grants its citizens — women and men — safety and happiness.
In a message directed at the Egyptian authorities, the Egyptian people, and all the people of the world who are thirsty for freedom, the women carried massive flags of Egypt and high banners that cracked the sky with images of female symbols of resistance on the political, social, artistic, and professional fronts. They raised images of trailblazers who set off the first sparks of social and political resistance: Huda Shaarawi, Inji Aflatoun, and Doriya Shafiq. They also carried pictures of the female martyrs of the January 2011 revolution, Sally Zahran and Mariam Fekry; of activists who were subjected to sexual harassment and, in a rare show of courage, exposed the thugs behind it, such as Yasmine El-Baramawy. They also raised images of brilliant women in the creative fields, such as Um Kulthoum, Suad Hosni, and Faten Hamama; a photograph of the Egyptian nuclear scientist Samira Moussa, who is said to have been assassinated by the Mossad in the United States in 1952, after completing her studies; and pictures of Nefertiti and Hatshepsut.
The women wanted to document their participation in political, social, and creative work, and to assert their active presence in all fields, in the face of attempts to take them centuries backwards.
There was a striking Arab dimension to the International Women's Day march in Cairo, embodied in such slogans as, “Djamila Bouhired in Algeria/Huda Shaarawi in Egypt.” It was also manifest in the creative initiative organized by The Uprising of Women in the Arab World, who hung up huge banners of Arab women on the walls surrounding the march. One such example was an image of Samira Ibrahim — who was subjected to 'virginity tests’ on 8 March 2011 and came forward with a courageous testimony against the ruling military council — with the quote: “I support the uprising of women in the Arab world because from their wombs revolutions are born.” There was also a noteworthy Palestinian presence: a photograph of a Palestinian woman featuring prominently on a large poster that connected the Palestinian struggle with the Arab struggle: “I support the uprising of women in the Arab world because I am Palestinian; I have been imprisoned, and yet I resist and will continue to resist until we achieve freedom and equality.” A deep feminist consciousness of the interconnectedness between the various Arab issues was visible, rejecting attempts for division and fragmentation, declaring war on sectarianism and tribalism. There was also an awareness of the importance of continuous and cumulative resistance, every day of the year, and not just on International Women's Day: “Women around the world, throughout the year.” As for the global, humanist dimension, it manifested itself in the participation of international female artists in the march, with music and mime. There was also recognition of the link between present and past, apparent in the slogans chanted, the banners raised, and the participants in the march, as seen by the slogans presented on the websites of some Egyptian feminist organizations, such as The New Woman: “Fight as the women before you have fought.”
When we search for commonalities between the International Women's Day marches in the Arab countries and in the rest of the world, we find that there is much that unites them, despite the differences that stem from the priorities and particulars of each country. Women stand against division and occupation in Palestine; against constitutions that do not protect their rights, that fritter away their historical gains and take them centuries backwards in Egypt and Tunisia. Women stand fighting for citizenship and equal rights in Jordan; against killing, destruction and displacement in Syria, and against poverty, injustice, fear, ignorance, and disease in Yemen. Throughout the Arab world, there are women fighting against violence, discrimination, fragmentation, racism, and the oppression of liberties in the name of religion; and throughout the world, there are women railing against violence and military thinking. The value of all values, the air and water of it all, is freedom: it is freedom intertwined as it is with dignity, rights, and social justice that brings together all the women on earth. It is worth fighting for, battling against its enemies, and dying in its cause.
We will fight as the women before us have fought, grandmothers, mothers, sisters, and young girls.
The women's struggle has not been a walk in the park. Some activists suffered greatly; some were imprisoned and tortured; and some were martyred in the quest for freedom: the Lebanese union activist Warda Botros Ibrahim in 1946, in resistance with Lebanese workers for their rights and hers; Sana'a Mehaidli, while defending her freedom and her country's freedom against the Israeli army of occupation in South Lebanon in 1985; the Algerian activist and physician Malika Gaid, who died in 1958 after planning and carrying out military operations against the French occupation; the Palestinian activist Shadia Abu Ghazaleh, in Nablus in 1968, as she was preparing a military operation against the Israeli occupier; and the activist Dalal Mughrabi, who declared the first Free Republic of Palestine, and who was martyred in 1978 on Palestinian soil.
To our Arab women martyrs, we uphold a vow to continue the resistance:
“Tired? Fed Up? Not we! /Freedom does not come for free”, and to those in prison, we swear to keep up the pressure “around the world, throughout the year” to expose the jailers and have our freedom prisoners released — to set all prisoners of freedom free.