Thursday, March 10, 2011

Not so great week

Here is Thomas and his friend Greer at the International Women's Day march at Tahrir Square last Tuesday.

They are standing at the gates of the American University Campus which is right on the square. Here they are on their way out of the metro. At one point they were holding hands and waving their egyptian flags, which was about as cute a thing as the world can hold.

Sadly, this was the high point of the protest. When we got to the square, it turned out that not that many egyptian women had turned out. Like maybe 6? But there were dozens of western women like us who had come to watch and "support" the march. And there were a couple of hundred men, some carrying signs supporting women's rights, I think, and some shouting the first group down.

We saw some of Thomas and Greer's teachers from Kompass, who were involved in a heated debate with some Egyptian men about, I'm not sure, I think about whether women have smaller brains. It was sort of angry and sort of friendly.

One of the teachers handed Thomas and Greer a stack of leaflets with a list of ten demands in Arabic. Some of the men standing around started taking the leaflets from Thomas, so I put him on my shoulders and he held them out. As I did this, I was aware of the considerable risk that Thomas would one day be appalled to learn that he had passed out feminist literature at an Egyptian protest. Greer's mom did the same thing with Greer and mostly it was kind of a funny joke-- this two cutie pie American kids wandering through a crowd of skeptical guys handing out feminist demands in Arabic. Most of the guys, who were young, smiled and looked at the list with a kind of polite curiosity.

I really misjudged this though, because the noticeable presence of western women was galling to some of the men. One man approached Greer's mom to ask "Where are you from?" to make the point that this was an Egyptian matter and not for outsiders. Joanna, who is 26 and a student in the refugee law program, said she was a student and living in cairo. They started debating, and of course I joined in. I was trying to point out that the revolution needed women to succeed-- research shows and blah blah blah when someone tapped Joanna and pointed to Greer. Greer was bent over and sobbing quietly on her mother's head. Evidently while we were arguing some guys had come, taken the leaflets out of Greer's hands and ripped them up in front of her. Poor little Greer-- she didnt understand and took it very personally. Thomas hadn't seen it happen, but he was upset that Greer was upset. They both just couldn't understand why grown-ups would rip up her papers. The explanation, that some people are disturbed by the idea of women having power and being smart, raised a number of new worries for Thomas, at least, who had never really thought about the whole thing before.

We left soon after. Later I heard that the protest had gotten uglier with women being attacked and "harassed." I dont really know what this means. When we were there, for every one young Egyptian woman there were 30 men surrounding her and arguing. It wasn't menacing but it didnt look pleasant either. Maybe this is what the reports meant by harassment or maybe it got more Lara Logan-ish later. Anyway, I think we will cool it on the protests for a while.

Joanna and I later wondered if we would see pictures of Thomas and Greer on the news as examples of the "foreign" agents who are inciting unrest in Cairo.

Just one other note-- the guy we argued with, and many of the others, seemed most disturbed about the idea of a woman being elected president. This whole thing has come up because the proposed revisions to the constitution to open up elections state that any presidential candidate cannot be married to "a non-Egyptian woman." So there has been some criticism that the revisions seem to assume that only men can be president. I've mostly seen this raised as an example of why the committee revising the constitution should have maybe y'know at least like ONE woman on it. None of the men counter-protesting really seemed to disagree; at least they said they were fine with women voting and participating, but they just couldn't stomach one as president. Evidently the Koran states men shouldn't take orders from women. But whatever, the dumbest part about this is that it is totally irrelevant. I guess maybe if you've had a dictator this isn't immediately apparent, but y'know, if you and everyone else don't want a woman for president, just don't vote for one.

Also last week, two guys on a motorcycle tried to snatch my purse as I was walking to pick up Thomas at Kompass. Luckily I am still part-New Yorker and I didn't let it go. Nothing was stolen and I was fine. But the feel of the man's fingernails snatching at my arm lingered. Even before the motorcycle was out of sight, past several bystanders who just stared, I was already thinking, "I miss the police state."

It just lasted a day or so, but I did think it.


Occhio said...

We have a police state waiting for you in the U.S. Please be more cautious until you get here.

Much love,


Kathy said...

Hopefully Thomas will remember that day and look back on it with great curiosity and pride. I'm so glad you took him the Square. You wrote he "never really thought about the whole thing before" - WHat a great Mom you are.
All of us reading about the fingernails snatching at your arm are a little alarmed now.
We love you, Mom

Laura said...

You miss Giuliani (the police state)? I never thought I'd see a smart woman express that thought.

Stay safe, and see you soon.


Anonymous said...

If the Egyptians elect a female president Americans might finally decide that the US is ready for one too.

Keep up the good work!

arthur and maggie said...

Elsie and Theo send thanks to cousin Thomas for his hard work on their behalf!

And that was a very interesting post too, btw.

Jane said...

Fascinating reading, Laura, about post-colonialism and sexism in Cairo. Your
blog demonstrates what it is to be both an ectopic American female and a
time traveler.


Mim said...

Karl Marx said “Anyone who knows anything of history knows that great social changes are impossible without feminine upheaval. Social progress can be measured exactly by the social position of the fair sex.” I am so proud of you, Thomas, Greer and Joanna—and how great for the younger generation to have you two as role models—getting out where it is important and a bit dangerous instead of back where it’s just safe. I totally understand being miffed, angry, confused and sad. It’s a transition and I would imagine those patriarchal Egyptian guys are planning and hoping for you to feel that way.
We are behind you Laura—you are watching history shift and the tectonic plates are moving so it must be easy to feel off balance.
We love you and are super proud of you!
Thank you for this fascinating post.
I forwarded it on to a bunch of my friends.
Big Kiss

annie said...

Your blog made me think about my time in Iran thirty five years ago. I wonder really how much things have changed for women in this area of the world after all this time. Well I was surrounded by 8-9 men all arguing at me at the same time, and you witnessed 30 men with one woman. So maybe we move forward in inches or perhaps only centimeters. But those brave and determined women who stand up for all their gender who are too scared and afraid to counteract the bullying and intimidation are to be commended. Good for you to introduce Thomas to these arguments, because we know he will think of it! I am so relieved to known that David is not one of the missing NYT's nerve-wracking for those families. Is the NYT's address still the same? Hugs, Annie

kathy b said...

Is the big rip in Thomas's pants part of the Revolution look ?

Jennifer said...

Laura K:
Don't forget that Jessi is in Germany. If you have a layover, she'd love to see you.
Laura B:
Keep up the good work. Not only are you so completely educating your sons, but all those who read your blog. Dan and I will be living in EU next academic year. We hope to get together with you guys at some point if at all possible. Take care.

madhavi said...

hi Dear One, any ideas as to why there were so few Egyptian women at the march/protest? Was it viewed as cultural imperialism or was it fear of reprisals? or ? or?love being there through your eyes and humor!!! Thanks Auntie M (madhavi) you have other auntie ms I realized...

Laura said...

@Auntie Madhavi: I've been asking around about this- the answer I hear most is poor organization. The protest was called for Tuesday when many women who might have gone are working. But, I don't know- the Jan 25 protests that started it all were on a Tuesday too. I think it was poorly organized/publicized, that there probably was intimidation and fear. Also, I heard some men and women saying, now is not the time. I get that- I've felt that way myself when lefties at home take up incredibly divisive social issues before important elections. I wouldn't put women's rights in that category but evidently many here would. It's a fragile coalition behind the revolution- no one wants to bust it apart too soon.