Egyptian Riot Grrls: Finding the Feminine Face of Fury

Much has been aflutter on twitter about the very visible presence of women among the protests that have taken Egypt by storm over the last few weeks, if images of them have remained sparse amid the digital slideshows strung together by major media outlets, portraying mainly dense, manly crowds.

While this myopia is likely exacerbated by misconceptions of women as subversive and ever-silent members of Muslim society, the “riot grrl” of the west has long been similarly disarmed by her femininity. No matter how fiery, female fury is seems always second to that of its male counterpart.  

What falls within these frames does not necessarily paint a full picture, since as Egyptian Organization for Human Rights activist Ghada Shahbandar claims, the crowd in downtown Cairo is up to 20 percent female. Others have put the number much higher, sometimes as high as 50 percent.  

Though far less prevalent, some efforts have been made to depict and document the role of women this popular uprising. The Global Post put together a slideshow on the Women of Egypt among the March of Millions in Tahrir Square, and a compilation of photographs from various sources can be found on sawt al niswa, a self-described “feminist webspace.”

A quick look through the reels of these images eliminates any remaining shred of doubt that the issues of unemployment and corruption that are widely cited as the primary causes for this unrest effect only men.  

Whether the faces of these women are framed by tightly wrapped black scarves pinned neatly to billowing abayas or by an unruly sweep of curls, it is striking that these women have found the very streets where sexual harassment and relentless stalking once were rampant suddenly transformed into safe havens, even amid the recent violence that has broken out.  

While public demonstrations in Egypt have brought about brutality against women in the past, many note that the current protests bear too heavily on the future to fall to the brutish. This has led Mike Giglio, a correspondent for The Daily Beast, to dub this latest round of civil uprising in Egypt the Purity Protests.  

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote recently of his own experiences in Tahrir Square where two bold sisters confronted pro-government thugs, even as male protesters balked before the blades and clubs Mubarak’s hired men have been carrying to cut the mass movement down to size.

Rallying a cry against riot police, a young Egyptian woman in a bright pink headscarf puts Nancy Sinatra to shame as she leads a call and response: “What does Mubarak want anyways? All Egyptians to kiss his feet? No Mubarak! We will not! Tomorrow we’ll trample you with our shoes!” And although “the bravest girl in Egypt” stands out with her brightly colored ensemble and resounding voice, she is not the only girl in Egypt taking a stand against a paternalistic regime in a patriarchic society.  

Aside from making a push strictly for political reform, these protests appear to bode well for the future of women within Egyptian civil society. To be sure, it was 27-year-old human resource specialist Esraa Abdel Fattah who was largely credited with organizing the April 6 Movement in 2008 which quickly developed into a 70,000-strong strike that spanned the nation. Catalyzed by textile workers in state-owned factories in El-Mahalla El-Kubra around the issues of low wages and rising food costs, the effective use of social media technologies by Abdel Fattah to promote the cause earned her the nickname “the Facebook Girl”—as well as three weeks in Cairo’s Al Kanater prison.  

While some might write off their efforts as the exception or else aestheticize them beyond any real import, the fact remains that the Egyptian women have decided to take back their streets—proving they are as much a part of the protests as the men who once made them wary to step out into them.