Egyptian women describe the spirit of Tahrir and their hope that the equality they found there will live on.
When 26-year-old Asmaa Mahfouz wrote on Facebook that she was going to Cairo’s Tahrir Square and urged all those who wanted to save the country to join her, the founding member of the April 6 Youth Movement was hoping to seize the moment as Tunisians showed that it was possible for a popular uprising to defeat a dictator.
Mahfouz later explained on Egyptian television that she and three others from the movement went to the square and began shouting: “Egyptians, four people set themselves on fire out of humiliation and poverty. Egyptians, four people set fire to themselves because they were afraid of the security agencies, not of the fire. Four people set fire to themselves in order to tell you to awaken. We are setting ourselves on fire so that you will take action. Four people set themselves on fire in order to say to the regime: Wake up. We are fed up.”
In a video she subsequently posted online, which quickly went viral, she declared: “As long as you say there is no hope, then there will be no hope, but if you go down and take a stance, then there will be hope.”
Egyptian women, just like men, took up the call to ‘hope’. Here they describe the spirit of Tahrir – the camaraderie and equality they experienced – and their hope that the model of democracy established there will be carried forward as Egyptians shape a new political and social landscape.
MONA SEIF, 24, RESEARCHER
"I have never felt as at peace and as safe as I did during those days in Tahrir."
The daughter of a political activist who was imprisoned at the time of her birth and the sister of a blogger who was jailed by the Mubarak regime, Mona Seif says nothing could have prepared her for the scale and intensity of the protests.
“I didn’t think it was going to be a revolution. I thought if we could [mobilise] a couple of thousand people then that would be great.
"I was angry about the corruption in the country, [about the death of] Khaled Said and the torture of those suspected but never convicted [of being behind] the Alexandria Coptic church [bombing].
"I realised this was going to be bigger than we had anticipated when 20,000 people marched towards Tahrir Square on January 25. That is when we saw a shift; it was not about the minimum wage or emergency law anymore. It became much bigger than this, it turned into a protest against the regime, demanding that Mubarak step down and that parliament be dissolved.
"On the night later dubbed ‘the battle of the camels’ when pro-Mubarak thugs attacked us, I was terrified. I thought they were going to shoot us all and get it over with. The turning point for me was when I saw the number of people ready to face death for their beliefs.
"I was amazed by the peoples’ determination to keep this peaceful even when we were under deadly attacks. When we caught the pro-Mubarak thugs, the guys would protect them from being beaten and say: ‘Peaceful, peaceful, we are not going to beat anyone up’. That was when I started thinking: ‘No matter what happens we are not going to quit until Mubarak leaves’. The spirit of the people in Tahrir kept us going.
"My friend and I had the role of ensuring that all of the videos and pictures from Tahrir were uploaded and as the internet connection was bad in Tahrir, we would use a friend’s nearby flat to make sure the images made it out so everyone could see what was happening in the square.
"I have never felt as at peace and as safe as I did during those days in Tahrir. There was a sense of coexistence that overcame all of the problems that usually happen – whether religious or gender based.
"Pre-January 25 whenever we would attend protests I would always be told by the men to go to the back to avoid getting injured and that used to anger me. But since January 25 people have begun to treat me as an equal. There was this unspoken admiration for one another in the square.
"We went through many ups and downs together. It felt like it had become a different society – there was one Egypt inside Tahrir and another Egypt outside.
"The moment Tahrir opened up, we saw a lot of people that were not there before and there were reports of females being harassed.
"I know that Egypt has changed and we will transfer the spirit of the square to the rest of the country. Before Tahrir if I was [harassed] I would refrain from asking people for help, because there are a lot of people that would disappoint you by blaming you. But I think the spirit of the revolution has empowered us to spread the feeling we established wider and wider. From now on, if anything happens to me, I am going to scream, I am going to ask people to help me and I know that I will find people that will help me.
"I was in front of the TV building when the news broke about Mubarak stepping down. I found myself swept away with people screaming and cheering. It was an emotional moment that I celebrated with strangers. People were hugging me, shaking my hands, distributing sweets. At that moment we were all one.
"I no longer feel alienated from society. I now walk the streets of Cairo and smile at strangers all the time. I have gained a sense of belonging with everyone on the streets of Cairo – at least for now. Before January 25 I was tempted to leave the country. This feeling has changed now, I want to stay here. This is an extension of our role in the revolution, we have to stay here and contribute to changing our society.”
GIGI IBRAHIM, 24, POLITICAL ACTIVIST
"In my experience women play a pivotal role in all protests and strikes."
Political activist Gigi Ibrahim played an instrumental role in spreading the word about the protests.
“I started [my political activism] by just talking to people [who were] involved [in the labour movement]. Then I became more active and the whole thing became addictive. I went to meetings and took part in protests. I learned very quickly that most of the strikes in the labour movement were started by women.
"In my experience women play a pivotal role in all protests and strikes. Whenever violence erupts, the women would step up and fight the police, and they would be beaten just as much as the men.
"I have seen it during the Khaled Said protests in June 2010 when many women were beaten and arrested. Muslim, Christian – all types of women protested.
"My family always had problems with me taking part in protests. They prevented me from going for my safety because I am a girl. They were worried about the risks. I would have to lie about attending protests.
"When the police violently cleared the square on January 25, I was shot in the back by a rubber bullet while trying to run away from the police as they tear gassed us. I returned to the square, as did many others, the following day and stayed there on and off for the next 18 days.
"As things escalated my dad got increasingly worried. On January 28, my sister wanted to lock me in the house. They tried to stop me from leaving, but I was determined and I went out. I moved to my aunt’s place that is closer to Tahrir Square and I would go there every now and again to wash and rest before returning to the square.
"At first my family was very worried, but as things escalated they started to understand and to be more supportive. My family is not politically active at all.
"The day-to-day conditions were not easy. Most of us would use the bathroom inside the nearby mosque. Others would go to nearby flats where people kindly opened their homes for people to use.
"I was in Tahrir Square on February 2, when pro-Mubarak thugs attacked us with petrol bombs and rocks. That was the most horrific night. I was trapped in the middle of the square. The outskirts of the square were like a war zone. The more things escalated the more determined we became not to stop. Many people were injured and many died and that pushed us to go on and not give up.
"I thought if those armed pro-Mubarak thugs came inside the square it would be the end of us. We were unarmed, we had nothing. That night I felt fear but it changed into determination.
"The women played an important role that night. Because we were outnumbered, we had to secure all the exits in the square. The exits between each end of the square would take up to 10 minutes to reach, so the women would go and alert others about where the danger was coming from and make sure that the people who were battling swapped positions with others so that they could rest before going out into the battle again.
"The women were also taking care of the wounded in makeshift clinics in the square. Some women were on the front line throwing rocks with the men. I was on the front line documenting the battle with my camera. It was like nothing that I have ever seen or experienced before.
"During the 18 days neither I nor any of my friends were harassed. I slept in Tahrir with five men around me that I didn’t know and I was safe.
"But that changed on the day Mubarak stepped down. The type of people who came then were not interested in the revolution. They were there to take pictures. They came for the carnival atmosphere and that was when things started to change.
"When the announcement came we all erupted in joy. I was screaming and crying. I hugged everyone around me. I went from being happy and crying to complete shock. It took a while for it to sink in.
"The revolution is not over. All of our demands have not yet been met. We have to continue. This is where the real hard work begins, but it will take a different shape than staging sit-ins in the square. Rebuilding Egypt is going to be tough and we all have to take part in this. There are organised strikes demanding workers’ rights for better pay and conditions and those are the battles to be won now.”
SALMA EL TARZI, 33, FILMMAKER
"What kept us going was the conviction that we did not have any option – it was either freedom or go to jail."
Having never been politically active, Salma El Tarzi was sceptical about the protesters’ chances of getting their demands met until the day when she stood on her balcony and saw the crowds. She decided to join the protesters and has not looked back since.
“I was protesting on my own on the 26th and 27th, but bumped into my younger brother in the crowd by chance on the 28th. We just carried on from then onward.
"What kept us going was the conviction that we did not have any option – it was either stay and fight for freedom or go to jail.
"My dad has been very supportive. He was getting to the point where he was telling me and my brother: “Don’t run away from gun fire, run towards it.”
"While in Tahrir we were all receiving threatening calls telling us that if we didn’t vacate the square we would be hunted and killed. But we didn’t care at that point. We were at the point of no return.
"Tahrir Square became our mini model of how democracy should be. Living there was not easy. We would use a nearby mosque and I would go to a friend’s house every now and then to wash. But I must admit that conditions were not ideal. It was very cold, we slept on the floor. Some of us had tents and some made their own tents. Let’s put it this way, due to the difficult conditions we called it the ‘smell of a revolution’.
"I was one of many women, young and old, there. We were as active as the men. Some acted as nurses and looked after the wounded during the battles; others were simply helping with distributing water. But there were a great number of women that were on the front line hurling stones at the police and pro-Mubarak thugs.
"The duties in the square were divided. We were very organised. Something changed in the dynamic between men and women in Tahrir. When the men saw that women were fighting in the front line that changed their perception of us and we were all united. We were all Egyptians now.
"The general view of women changed for many. Not a single case of sexual harassment happened during the protests up until the last day when Mubarak stepped down. That is a big change for Egypt.
"The fear barrier was broken for all of us. When we took part in the protests it was just a protest for our basic human rights, but they [the regime] escalated it to a revolution. Their brutality and violence turned it into a revolution. What started as a day of rage turned into a revolution that later toppled the regime that had been in power for 30 years. They [the regime] empowered us through their violence; they made us hold on to the dream of freedom even more. We were all walking around with wounds, but we still kept going. We were even treating injured horses that they had used in their brutal attacks against us.
"Before January 25 I didn’t have faith that my voice could be heard. I didn’t feel like I was in control of my future. The metaphor used by Mubarak that he was our father and we were his children made us feel as though we lacked any motivation.
"The revolution woke us up – a collective consciousness has been awoken.”