On International Women’s Day, women rights activists in Egypt called for a one million women march at Cairo’s Tahrir Square.
I arrived in Tahrir around 2pm local time [12GMT] on Tuesday March 8, but was surprised to see the sheer volume of men who outnumbered the women, as if it was International Men’s Day!
However, as the crowd trickled in, it grew into hundreds but very far from the planned one million!
Ironically, the few women, I came across in the beginning, were oblivious of the fact that it was a women's day march.
After negotiating through the maddening crowd I finally managed to meet Nehad Abo Alomsan, the organiser of the march.
Nehad, also the chair for Egyptian centre for women's right, explained the concept behind the event, "We marked the celebration to salute all the martyrs, men and women, and to remind the society of the role the women played during the revolution.”
“Women stood shoulder to shoulder by the men, but post-revolution when it came to the decision-making process they were excluded.”
Emphasising the importance of participation of women in any democratic transition, Nehad expressed her disappointment at the lack of female experts in the constitutional committee.
"We just want to draw the attention of the decision makers and appeal to the women that if they keep silent now then they will lose everything. The involvement of women is not a demand it’s a principle,” she said.
"We are reminding the society of the principle of the whole revolution, equality and human dignity."
Another woman activist, Iman, the chairman of the development and enhancement of women, said that she came for several reasons they as an organisation are trying to lobby for the inclusion of women in the committee for reviewing the new constitution, and in all decision-making process.
"We need to be part of the kitchen of the decision making. We are advocating for the younger people. We would want to adopt 10-15 or more women and groom them to run for parliament but not presidency,” she said.
She explained her position in the same breadth.
"It's not because we don’t think women should be president but we think the society is not ready right now."
Accepting that it was symbolic, Iman said, “We are using this opportunity today to say to the people, ‘remember women are still there, do not forget that women exist’."
Many Egyptian and non-Egyptian men came in big numbers in support of the rally.
And a group of French and Italian expats also turned up in solidarity with the women of Egypt.
"We came here to show solidarity and support women's rights in the world wherever they are. In Tahrir even more because women played a huge role in the revolution like the men," Rafaela from Italy said.
As people trickled in the crowd got bigger. Young men and women standing together were seen busy in their own mini-discussions, agreeing on some, disagreeing on others.
Some men were not ready to buy the idea of a woman-only-march. They said the demands of the people should be unified. “Why are we dividing our demands? asked a man.
“When the revolution started we were all the same with the same demands, what changed now,” he asked.
The youth was involved in fascinating debates and I thought this is democracy in the making, people discussing issues. Well that thought didn’t last long as the events unfolded later.
Women of all ilk, young, old, veiled, unveiled, all decked up at the Tahrir Square. As they stood there peacefully with their signs that read: "more rights for women", "Egypt for all Egyptians", a small crowd of men started to gather in front of the women’s rally.
The anti-women’s day crowd grew as did their loud chants that said:"al shab yoreed esqat al madam", "the people demand the removal of the lady/women".
Some of them directed their aggression towards the men who were supporting the women others just chanted 'illegitimate' while pointing at the pro-women crowd.
For some of the women, things got a bit too tense.
Riham Shebel, a women rights and sexual rights activist, said, "I was mobbed by a group of men. They wanted to know what the protests were for.”
"They thought that it was one of those western influences. I explained what International Women's Day was. But then they started yelling at me that it was one of those sectarian demands. I told them that today’s event was organised in honour of all of the martyrs, women and men, of the Egyptian revolution."
Woman as president
However, as the anti-women day crowd grew, the atmosphere went from celebratory to hostile. Most of the men and some of the women, that joined them later, had a problem with one of the demands that called for a woman to become a president.
Mahmood, a student, said, "We can't have a woman run this country, been there done that! This country was run by Mubarak's wife, and she is the only role model of these women.”
Significantly, a woman running for the president post was something not acceptable to the anti-women crowd.
"If they run the country, then what will happen to us? This is unacceptable," said one man.
But a pro-woman man replied: "Well, then just don't vote for her."
The anti-women’s day crowd started to volley verbal abuse at some of the women for the way they were dressed and how they looked. At that point some of the women started to leave.
However, a majority stayed and there were many men in the women camp who stood as a buffer between the hostile crowd and women, supporting women rights and chanting pro-women slogans.
It was a sad moment to see how a day that was meant to celebrate women all over the world end like this. It was particularly sad to see the faces of some of the women that were visibly shocked at the response and behaviour of the anti-women day protesters.
The event organiser was shocked at the incident.
She said, "I am shocked, I didn’t expect this to happen. But these guys are unaware of our plight and it will take time before the awareness is spread."
For now the wheel of discussion and creating awareness about women issues and their democratic demands have started, but for now, the idea of a woman president seems unlikely... at least for now...