By Sarah Duff
I don’t think I’ve ever watched quite so much television as I have in the past three weeks. I’ve watched with fascination, hope, and fear as Tunisian and Egyptian protestors demanded the resignation of Hosni Mubarak and their first democratic government since, well, forever. But I’ve found the coverage of these protests in the media (almost) as fascinating: from the debate around which revolution the Nile or Lotus uprising best resembles, to how many women participated in the mass gatherings in Tahrir Square and elsewhere.
This interest in women’s involvement in the Egyptian protests is, I think, partly as a result of perceptions around women’s position within North Africa and the Middle East – can protests in support of democracy be truly democratic if they exclude women – and also because of the iconic images of women in the last major round of protests in the Arab world: the Green, or Twitter, Revolution in Iran in 2009. The death of Neda Agha Soltan who was quickly described as the first martyr of the failed revolution, as well as the number of photographs of female protestors, positioned young women at the heart of this revolt of Iran’s frustrated youth.
And as websites and coverage of the Egyptian protests demonstrated, women – and particularly young women – did join the protests, albeit in smaller numbers than young men. Whether they were part of the groups of young people who organised the protests remains to be seen – I have my doubts – but the fact is that they were there. This is a good moment to consider the role that women have played in revolutions in the past.
In a nice turn of phrase, revolutions have been described as ‘festivals of the oppressed’. They allow those frequently marginalised within society – the poor, the youth, women, and ethnic, cultural, and religious minorities – to take to the streets and demand equal rights. In a sense, revolutions open up spaces usually closed to these groups. By turning the world ‘upside down’, revolutions allow citizens to rethink how they use and occupy public spaces.
We know that women have participated in revolutions since the eighteenth century, and usually in large numbers. During the 1789 French Revolution, poor women featured strongly in the protests against high food prices which were partly responsible for sparking off the revolution. The women’s march to Versailles on 5 October 1789 was caused partly by women’s anger at the cost of bread and other staples, but was also an expression of their political frustrations: gathering at the gates of Versailles they demanded that Louis XVI to accept, among other things, the Declaration of the Rights of Man. This is an important point: although poor women – who were responsible for feeding their families – were preoccupied with ‘bread and butter’ issues, and often literally so, they were also politically savvy and, along with men, demanded a fundamental shift in the nature of governance in France. When housewives and market women invaded the revolutionary Assembly on 20 May 1795, they did so both in protest of food shortages and to demand that the Constitution be implemented.
Many male revolutionaries certainly did support the idea of equal for women, but were slow to implement them. Enraged that the Declaration of the Rights of Man excluded women, Olympe de Gouges wrote the Declaration of the Rights of Women in 1791. In it, she declared ‘Woman is born free and lives equal to man in her rights’ and demanded equal rights for men and women. Men did welcome women into the political clubs and societies which emerged during the Revolution, but the Society of Revolutionary Republican Women was the first political group for ordinary women to be established in Europe. It became a key faction in revolutionary politics, representing the interests of poor and middle-class women.
However, the revolutionary governments did not materially improve the lot of women, and after his coup d’état in 1799, Napoleon instituted measures which restricted the rights of women to an even greater extent than before the Revolution. A fairly similar pattern of events occurred during and after the 1917 Russian Revolution. While women didn’t play the same active role as in France at the end of the eighteenth century, there were feminist groups in Russia who campaigned for equal rights. The Leagues of Equal Rights and of Women’s Equality organized a 40,000-strong women’s demonstration in 1917. The Bolsheviks – many of whom regarded women’s rights as a distraction – only established a women’s wing, Zhenotdel, in 1919. This successfully campaigned for the introduction of crèche facilities, laundries, and canteens to free women up from domestic work. But it was disbanded by Stalin in 1930, who preferred to emphasise the roles played by women in the family.
In one of the most telling comments about the Egyptian protests, one participant Heba Lashin commented that for the first time she felt safe and comfortable in Cairo’s public spaces. In the past she would have stayed away from protests: ‘The risk is too high and the returns are too low. I could get groped, and no one is listening to them anyway. But now, we aren’t even thinking about this. We are all only thinking about one thing. This has become our focus.’ As the examples discussed above suggest, revolutions tend to offer women the chance of full gender equality, but, in the end, tend to sacrifice this in the name of other concerns deemed to be more important. Considered in spatial terms, women retreat from the streets and squares which they occupied during the revolution, and back to their homes.
Let’s hope that Egypt proves to be the exception in this case.