Wael Ghonim, the Google executive who turned hero during the Egyptian protests, says “women empowerment is key to the new Egypt.” In Egypt, women are often nameless and faceless. News sources told us of women protesting alongside of men in Tahrir Square, with little mention of names. Egyptian women are seen but rarely heard to express their views. And the media does little to change the perception. There were at least 2 named women helping to lead the revolution in Egypt. Asmaa Mahfouz, a 26 year old, is credited with having a lead role in organizing the mass protests of millions in Cairo. She used the Internet to organize, mobilize and post the video that went viral, urging Egyptians to come to Tahrir Square, or now known as Liberation Square, on January 25. She is not alone in her woman led efforts. Amal Shareef, a 36 year old teacher and single mother, whose name means “hope” in Arabic, ran an office of approximately 10 men volunteers, to spearhead major efforts for the revolution. As the Egyptians turn to new leadership, one can’t help but wonder whether an Egyptian woman will come forward as a major leader.
If American history is any indication, an Egyptian woman leader after Mubarak, is not as strange as it sounds. Who would have guessed in 2000 that Hillary Clinton would run a campaign seeking the Democratic nomination for president in 2008 or become Secretary of State? How many people heard of Sarah Palin, outside of Alaska, before 2008? Yet, long before Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin, there was Shirley Chisholm. In 1968 Shirley Chisholm became the first black woman elected to Congress. Four years later, Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm again did the unthinkable. In 1972, Rep. Chisholm (D. NY) ran for the Democratic nomination for President of the United States, as the first black and first woman. She ran as a “catalyst for change”. In her book, “The Good Fight”, she recognized that her chances were slim to obtain the Democratic nomination. She explains:
“I ran for the presidency, despite hopeless odds, to demonstrate the sheer will and refusal to accept the status quo” … “The next time a woman runs, or a black, a Jew or anyone from a group that the country is ‘not ready’ to elect to its highest office, I believe that he or she will be taken seriously from the start.”
Congresswoman Chisholm knew change from the status quo has to start somewhere. She remarked that, “Women in this country must become revolutionaries. We must refuse to accept the old, the traditional roles and stereotypes.” The very same thing is now happening with women in Egypt. While Egyptian women are from a different culture than American women, there are similarities to suggest the future possibility of a run for the highest office by an Egyptian woman. When Rep. Shirley Chisholm (D.NY) first ran for Congress in 1968, it was just 3 years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 outlawed discriminatory voting practices that disenfranchised African Americans. And just 7 years after its passage, Chisholm ran for the Democratic nomination for the presidency.
Rep. Chisholm recognized the importance of being a woman who fought for change. She stated:
“When I die, I want to be remembered as a woman who lived in the twentieth century and who dared to be a catalyst for change. I don’t want be remembered as the first black woman who went to Congress, and I don’t even want to be remembered as the first woman who happen to be black to make a bid for the presidency. I want to be remembered as a woman who fought for change in the twentieth century. That’s what I want.”
Egyptian women, in pressing forward after President Mubarak’s reign, should also continue to fight for change, too. For yes, change comes about in measured steps, with women taking one step at a time.
Debbie Hines is a trial lawyer and political/ legal commentator who is frequently seen in the media. She speaks on race, gender and class issues in law and politics. She holds a Juris Doctorate from George Washington University and a BA from the University of Pennsylvania.