Mideast Egypt ProtestThe staggering breadth of the uprising in Egypt and the size of the crowds would not be possible without the historic role the country’s women are playing in the political protests. Women are out in the streets, on videos on the Web, on Facebook, and Twitter, speaking out for themselves, their country, and their children. As Amr Hamzawy, research director at the Carnegie Middle East Center, who is in central Cairo, says in this New York Times piece on women in Egypt: “Female participation is at an equal standing – just like male participation – and female demonstrators are not shying away from marching despite the tear gas. It’s very impressive. It’s not about male and female, it’s about everyone.” Tahrir SquareHowever, the protests were also about Egyptian women “defying all of the Western world’s stereotypes.” This short documentary The Women of Tahrir Square is fascinating. The women in this film deliberately challenge the simplistic picture of themselves as “perennial victims, perennially subservient” and are clearly fed up with having to respond to a stereotype that has nothing to do with their reality. While the film is short, and will not be a revelation to those who have been following the events in Egypt closely, it’s both a good overview from a woman’s perspective and an eloquent demonstration of the importance of the female voice in both the revolution and the country’s future. And it ends on a heartening note: “I’ve never been as comfortable as a woman as I have been in the past two days.” A the dust settles on Tunisia and Egypt’s unusually peaceful revolutions, women inside and outside of those countries are asking what’s next for them. Of course, each country’s policies and practices towards women has varied, but both North African nations where revolutions have already taken place boast relatively high levels of rights and literacy for women. The key question now is whether those are about to be eroded. The specter of an Islamist curtailing of women’s rights, after all, was bandied about as reason to worry about ex-ruler Mubarak’s departure.

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Women react during a demonstration in Cairo.

The short answer is, no one knows yet. But observers, including the U.S., were alarmed when there was not a single woman on the new committee for Egypt’s constitution. “Women in Egypt protested for change. It is a concern that women are excluded from the constitutional committee that must ensure all rights,” State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said via Twitter. Egyptian women launched a petition to get a woman at the table – and within days had more than 11,000 signatures. Isobel Coleman recently wrote in The Washington Post, “Women’s rights will be a litmus test for the new government – a sign of where the country is headed.” In Tunisia, former president Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali used to point to the freedoms enjoyed by women as a reason to keep him in power. The International Herald-Tribune notes, “For three decades, women’s rights were his bulwark against Islamists at home and his alibi with Western governments inquiring about human rights abuses.” But it wasn’t just lip service; for decades, Tunisian women have lived under significantly more liberal circumstances: Tunisian women were among the first in the Arab world to obtain the right to vote, shortly after independence in 1956. They secured abortion rights the same year U.S. women did and have a greater share of seats in Tunisia’s Parliament than women have in the French Parliament. Marriage is conditional on female consent and miniskirts are as common a sight as the Muslim head scarf in Tunis’s cityscape. The suggestion here is that educating women and codifying their rights came back to haunt Ben-Ali, because those women, too, turned against him. As for what comes next, so far you have to read the signs. A returning opposition leader, Rachid Ghannouchi, who had previously opposed many of these reforms, has recently been talking up women’s rights, which a Tunisian human rights lawyer tells The Herald Tribune “may be tactical, but the fact that he feels he has to talk this way is a pretty good indication that wanting to roll back women rights is no way to gain support in Tunisia right now.” Egypt woman kisses soldier The images in this article say volumes about the strength that women in Egypt have shown to assist a revolution in their country. For example, there is so much more than the emotion of one Egyptian woman kissing an Egyptian soldier. As the Atlantic notes, it is far more meaningful than a show of national unity:
”…It was also far more radical than that in a country in which men and women are barely tolerated holding hands in public in the most liberal precincts of comparatively Christian Alexandria, and where public displays of affections are frowned upon and likely to be met with cutting glances and vicious neighborhood gossip elsewhere. “

The images of women are so powerful coming from a country that only last year saw the passage of a law mandating that 64 new seats in the house must go to women. Even with these reforms, it appears 12% of the new parliament will be women members. But in the streets, the strength of  their numbers has been keenly felt. Article excerpts from Jezebel, Yahoo! Shine, NY Times