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March 09, 2011

MWA Director, Aishah Schwartz, Attends 100th International Women's Day Event in Cairo, Egypt

Egypt showed the world on Jan. 25 that change is possible when people are organized and exercise their voices, rather than simply doing nothing at all to contribute toward societal and governmental change.

EGYPT (March 8, 2011) - Riding a bus through the night to arrive in Cairo for the 100th Anniversary celebration of International Women's Day and in support of a call for an end to violence against women in conflict zones, like Palestine, Libya, Afghanistan, Kurdistan, Iraq, etc. -- in addition to calling for equal seats at negotiating tables in support of peace initiatives -- by mid-afternoon of March 8, I found myself once again, as I had on February 8, in Tahrir Square.

Playing no small role in the recent and ongoing Egyptian Revolution, Egyptian women's rights advocates gathered to reiterate that the challenge they face now is to make sure women maintain their involvement as the nation purges itself of the Mubarak regime, by seeking political gains and true equality.

Initially I encountered difficulty finding comrades from among the hundreds of people who now find congregating at Tahrir Square virtually habitual as the Jan. 25 revolution continues to evolve post-Mubarak regime; the surrounding area filled with street vendors selling snacks and a wide variety and souvenirs.

Determined to persevere in my quest to participate in International Women's Day events, I continued to look for signs of anyone connected to the called-for gathering of women. A short time later, I spotted a group who appeared to be from among the larger pool of demonstrators, one of whom aided me in procuring a white vinyl, Arabic language demonstration sign indicating something to the effect that women's rights (or voices) could not be bargained away in the formation of a post-revolution democratic government.

Sign in hand, primarily for effect, I took a position of elevation on a short concrete wall encircling a land-fill, being that I was wearing a hand-made cover over my abaya; the front of which was an Egyptian flag, the back being a flag representing Palestine (which a few mistook as being the flag of Libya; yes, I did search for one!).

Having arrived as one, I eventually found myself inched down the wall toward a smaller group of vibrant young women, likewise sharing their signs and enthusiastically chanting slogans into the lenses and microphones of reporters and the growing audience in front of us. This would be where I would spend the majority of the afternoon; in great company! Al-hamdulillah, the time from 3 to 7 passed relatively quickly under comfortable temperatures and sunny skies.

Early on, an anti-demonstration group of men, chanting rather loudly from center of the street in front of us, also did little to deter either myself or any of the other women from what I could see, although it was quite disturbing to find such opposition to the collective initiative. Clearly we were being confronted by an element standing steadfastly in the belief that it is neither a duty or requirement, let alone right! of women to exercise their brains.

From among the anti-demonstration crowd, there arose a single, hotly bothered adversary who seemed to imagine himself a force to be reckoned with, however, Al-hamdulillah, there were supportive male figures managing his antagonism. In fact, at one point the man snatched and tore up one of the signs a woman in front of me (street level) was holding. I could just imagine from where I stood on the ledge behind the poor woman, the dismayed look on her face. Al-hamdulillah, peacemakers intervened and after a few minutes, the antagonist returned with a duplicate of the torn up sign and gave it to the woman he had originally snatched it from. Subhan'Allah, I would not have imagined that from him, and although he continued for the duration of the demonstration to relentlessly spew his antagonistic remarks (you don't have to understand Arabic to get the gist), aside from the sign-snatching incident he didn't, Al-hamdulillah, become physical again in any way. We were, after all, mindful that the day's events, worldwide, were to also bring attention to the issue of violence perpetrated by men against women!
Another interesting thing happened during the course of the afternoon. It happened a man stepped into the line beside me to the left, and spotting a fallen demonstration sign laying on the ground, I pointed it out to him, motioning for him to retrieve it for me. Naturally, he stepped off the ledge and bent to pick it up. Climbing the ledge again he presented me with the sign and I motioned for him to keep it - after all, if he was going to stand beside me, I reasoned, he might as well make himself busy. Subhan'Allah, he was content to do as I had asked until a short time later, when another man appeared below us to shout at the man standing beside me! I stood listening, again, not knowing exactly what he was saying, however, the body language was loud and clear...snatch! Suddenly the sign was out of my comrade's hands, similarly torn up as in the incident with the woman just a short time before! Sadly it became abundantly clear that the man was completely taken aback with his counter-part's support of the demonstration!
American Activist, Aishah Schwartz and Dr. Sherehan Khalil, of Cairo.
Al-hamdulillah, as the dejected male demonstrator tore himself away from our group, I became acquainted with a young doctor doing her residency in ICU at a local Cairo hospital. Sherehan, like myself, had also arrived to the Women's Day demonstration alone after reading about it on Facebook just the night before. She and I became fast comrades, and as the crowd began to thin out, she enthusiastically strove to continue through the last of the daylight minutes countering questioning adversaries. I stood by her side, gently guiding her away to fresh locations when it appeared that the conversations would not reach a meaningful conclusion within the limitation of the remainder of our time in the Square. May Allah subhanahu wa ta'ala bless her; as we made our final break out of the demonstration Sherehan volunteered to escort me back to my hotel. Al-hamdulillah.

Despite the afternoon's adversarial atmosphere, I was offered a few opportunities to be interviewed, as were numerous other women attending the Women's Day demonstration. Being able to answer questions for various television and print media was a welcome reprieve affording us the opportunity to state our positions - above the voices of the objection-filled male counter-demonstrators facing us in the street. Hopefully, insha'Allah, some of our words will reach those with open ears, minds and hearts willing and able to do their part in making a difference in support of women unable to help themselves, particularly in times of crisis.

For sure there weren't a million women standing in solidarity with us at the March 8 International Women's Day event in Cairo, however, although I am only a non-Egyptian resident of Egypt, I didn't walk away from the event with any sense that the efforts of those who participated were in vain; as neither were the lost lives of the Martyrs of the Jan. 25 Revolution.

If one woman or 1 million women arrived at the Tahrir Square gathering point on March 8, the bottom line is - they arrived. Egypt showed the world on Jan. 25 that change is possible when people are organized and exercise their voices, rather than simply doing nothing at all to contribute toward societal and governmental change.

Kudos to those who stood today in solidarity to support the human and civil rights of women from Cairo, Egypt and worldwide, whether it was on a bridge, in a street, or in a Square, on this, the 100th Anniversary of International Women's Day.

MWA Director, Aishah Schwartz, Attends 100th International Women's Day Event in Cairo, Egypt
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