Badass Egyptian Women: Part One

Today, January 25th, marks the one year anniversary of the beginning of the Egyptian uprising.

During the events of last year, I took a particular interest in the commentary of feminist blogs. From that perspective, women were central to the uprising, standing side by side with male protestors in Tahrir Square, free from the fear of harassment that stalks (according to a 2008 study by the Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights) four out of five women in Egypt.

It seemed almost utopian. With the toppling of the regime, women were released from harassment and oppression:

“I really believe the revolution has changed us. People are acting differently towards each other. An oppressed people look for someone else to bully and oppress. Now, this is the first time in 40 years people have tasted freedom. Men are no longer touching women.”

The centering of women’s role in the revolution was perhaps not as unlikely as commentators would have us believe; after all, women have held powerful positions in Egypt. Indeed some of those universal symbols of powerful, defiant women come from Egypt: Cleopatra, Nefertiti, Hatshepsut

In the weeks and months following those 18 days in Tahrir, there was a sinister sense of those very women having been sold out: The Million Woman March on International Women’s Day where women were told to “go home..where you belong”; the forced virginity tests; brutality captured in the widely circulated video of soldiers pulling the abaya from a woman, beating and kicking her, and the specter of creeping social conservatism.

But there is still, I believe, ample room for optimism. How can you not feel optimistic looking at these pictures of thousands of women defiantly marching through Cairo; “the biggest women’s demonstration in modern Egyptian history.”

Shima'a Helmy. Photgraph by Pete Foley via flickr http://www.flickr.com/photos/petefoley/6284943260/

There are six weeks until International Women’s Day and in that time (and perhaps beyond) I want to pay my respects to those brave, defiant, badass Egyptian women that have touched me. Purely out of indulgence; I take pleasure reading and educating myself about wonderful women.

This series will take no particular order, but I want to start with a woman who has been fighting and shouting for decades. Anyone with a rudimentary grasp of feminist history will know the name ….

Nawal El-Saadawi

Nawal el-Saadawi. Photo via The Guardian http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/mar/08/nawal-el-saadawi-100-women

Nawal El-Saadawi: Author, doctor, director of public health, publisher of the feminist magazine Confrontation, feared by the government, and imprisoned by the Sadat regime. She was also, at the age of 79, among the protestors in Tahrir Square.

I first read her slim novel, Woman at Point Zero around the time I was beginning to take an interest in the sex worker rights movement. It was recommended to me by an activist, and it is plain to see why. For all its tub-thumping quotability — “Now I realized that the least deluded of all women was the prostitute. That marriage was the system built on the most cruel suffering for women.” / “A woman’s life is always miserable. A prostitute, however, is a little better off.” — The book takes a complex view of prostitution: at once showing the ways in which it can victimize a woman, and how she can find liberation and empowerment through the work.

The novel concerns a woman, Firdaus, a prostitute sentenced to death for murdering a man who demands to be her pimp. Her childhood history includes female genital mutilation, hunger, being orphaned, and a forced marriage, which brings with it brutal beatings. She enjoys a comfortable life as a prostitute — being very selective in the customers she accepts — but yearns for the respect she would gain by working in a normal, low-paying job. She takes such a job but soon realizes that “as a prostitute I had been looked upon with more respect … An employee is scared of losing her job and becoming a prostitute because she does not realize that a prostitute’s life is, in fact, better that hers.” She returns to prostitution, but then this would-be pimp ruins it for her.

She goes to her death without guilt.

The prose is heavy and points are hammered home, but reading her, I can barely restrain myself from punching the air and crying Yes! Perhaps she has to bludgeon the point home because she is saying things that, frankly, are unspeakable: do wives really want to hear that they are prostitutes too? (and, according to Firdaus, the cheapest kind.)

Firdaus hated the work of prostitution, but had reached the conclusion that she lived in a society where women were taken advantage of and mistreated at each and every turn. For her, prostitution carved off a little power for herself: “my insistence on remaining a prostitute, proved to me this was my choice and I had some freedom, at least the freedom to live in a situation better than that of other women.”

The book is eminently quotable. Moreover it speaks to modern concerns: anti-vice corruption (the police tell her that they have to protect “respectable families” from the likes of her — of course it was the “respectable families” who abused her) and do-gooder “rescuers” of fallen women (“the men I hated the most were those who tried to give me advice, or told me that they wanted to rescue me from the life I was leading.” )

Firdaus found freedom and empowerment in sex work. But she also found abuse and, ultimately, her death. I don’t think I have read such a conflicted account as that of Woman at Point Zero.

An Interview with Nawal El Saadawi – The Nation

Nawal El Saadawi: i am going to carry on this fight forever – Independent

Egyptian Feminist Nawal El Saadawi in Cairo’s Tahrir Square – Ms. Blog

Women and the Revolution – NOW Lebanon

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