A Revolution Asks Questions

Doaa Abdelaal is a women’s rights activist who works in Egypt, the Middle East, and North Africa with women and youth groups. She is a board member of the International Solidarity Network Women Living Under Muslim Laws and a member of Ikhtyar Collective for Gender Research and Studies in Egypt.

I still remember how I felt celebrating with thousands on Tahrir Square the night Hosni Mubarak was toppled. I was happy and proud. I believed that change would come. Whenever I feel confused or frustrated now, I recall those feelings to encourage me to continue moving toward change.

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In Tahrir Square in 2011, I was surrounded by waves of smiling people shaking hands, singing, and dancing. Suddenly a question rose in my head that has haunted me ever since. On the way back home that day, when my father asked me why I was silent, I asked him, “What is next?” He did not reply, but his friend started talking about different experiences in other countries. I listened carefully and said, “So it is not going to be easy and we should be ready.”

The change I dream of will not come easily, or without commitment and sacrifices.

After hundreds of incidents, clashes, protests, marches, sit-ins, and political settlements, I am experiencing another emotion:anger. I am angry with the people who believe that we failed, and I am angry with mocking questions such as “Where are the women?” because some analysts cannot see beyond the number of women in parliament or a constitution drafting committee.

I would like to tell them that revolutions do not give answers; they only raise questions that may not have answers yet. The Egyptian revolution is not an exception.

The women and men who believe in revolution as a process to change and challenge stereotypes and rigid lifestyles saw the January 25, 2011 revolution as a window that finally opened after years of struggle. This window is small—it might be difficult to fit through it—but I am sure it will not close. And we are making our way through the window now, day by day, to a changed and freer society.

We struggled for years to create a society that respects personal freedoms as well as equality of all human beings. The January 25 revolution was an opportunity for a younger generation to emerge who believes that justice must be the basis for treating people regardless of gender, faith, class, race, and ethnicity. I keep asking Nada, a 25-year-old acquaintance, why she decided to leave her work in a reputable multinational company for a women’s rights nongovernmental organization (NGO) in Boulaq, a Cairo neighborhood considered to be a slum.

She always has the same answer: “Because if the women in Boulaq did not get their rights, then no woman in Egypt will get hers, regardless of her class or how ‘free’ she thinks she is. To empower women and develop the country you need to start with the very basic needs.” For Nada and many other young women who work to realize the dream of change, gender equality cannot be achieved without changing the overall political system that oppresses us.

We have faced hundreds of setbacks in the past three years. The social, economic, and political systems in Egypt oppress us, hinder our creativity, and impose curfews that limit our movement. But when I feel stuck and worn down, I recall the feeling I had on Tahrir Square and the vision before me that evening, of thousands of young women and men who believed that a revolution depends on a dream, on laughter, on celebration.

I forget my anger and frustration at the slow process for change when I hear that young women continue to work to change the rules of the game in political parties. They are not just filling out membership forms; they argue that they must be a part of decision making and agenda setting, making it clear that they are not planning to stop pushing for reforms. Another acquaintance, Naiera, struggles inside her political party to bring youth vision to the agenda. “It is difficult to bring the youth vision to established parties who have money and power,” she says. “But we know that youth can make a difference and contribute to change and that’s what motivates to us to be organized and unified.”

I forget being tired when I see that men are joining the struggle, not just fighting for women’s rights, but for gender equality. We are together pushing for change; together we paint our dreams on the walls.

My anger returns, however, when I remember how much we risk as women in our public and private struggles. In November 2011, when clashes erupted between protestors who wanted to protect the Tahrir Square sit-in and security forces, I was delivering medical supplies to a field hospital with a friend. She looked at me and asked, “How much tear gas have we inhaled in the last few days?” I was not sure how to reply. She smiled then and said, “I want to be a mother one day and am struggling to give our children an Egypt free of oppression, but I hope my body gets rid of the poisons of the tear gas so it will not affect the health of my babies.” She was dreaming in the middle of the gas clouds, reminding me that in mid of our struggles we should not forget our personal dreams.

I hope my mixed up feelings and emotions will stay with me forever. These feelings and the questions our revolution poses are needed to create alternatives, to pave new roads, so we are not trapped between two options only: a militarized regime or another that is based on religious fundamentalist thinking. We pose questions such as “Where to go next?” and “How we should organize ourselves?” to try to understand our present and our future. It is difficult but we need to keep those questions alive. We believe that another world is possible, and without any ready answers, we still work for it.


This piece was first published on Building Peace Forum here.