It was exciting to finally see outrage in thousands of Egyptian women who took to the streets on January 10 to protest the beating and stripping of a female demonstrator in Tahrir Square. The iconic demonstrator became known as the "blue bra girl" because the soldiers tearing away at her revealed a blue bra. In one of the biggest women's demonstrations in modern Egyptian history, women of all ages, secular and traditional Muslims, came together and said "The girls of Egypt are here!" Enough is enough.
What really struck me was that as these women asserted their civil rights, men holding hands encircled them to keep them from getting harassed. It immediately conjured up a memory of a moment during my interview with Violet, an Australian aboriginal elder. At the end of our time together she said, "Women hold the wisdom, men hold the love. That's how it should be."
What's your reaction to that statement? It completely took me aback; it seemed our culture emphasized the exact opposite. It became a guiding light for me in writing my book. Why do I need to uncover women's wisdom? What has prevented men from holding love? I think what Violet was implying was that both men and women hold the love and wisdom, but in order to achieve that internal balance women need to embrace the wisdom they hold. and men need to identify with holding love. With that internal balance hopefully comes a cultural balance where women's wisdom receives the respect it deserves and men are free to take on a role of giving love.
The image of this protest seemed to visually illustrate women holding the wisdom and men holding the love. What a powerful and hopeful image it was for me.
If only it was that easy.
Men protecting the protestors was a mixed bag for many women. "If you are calling for men to protect you, that is bad, because then they define you and they stick to the traditional role," said Mozn Hassan, executive director of Nazra for Feminist Studies. And the traditional role is that women aren't leaders and are subjugated by men. Indeed, men had no trouble taking charge of this demonstration that had been initiated by women, directing the crowd and leading its chants. Women have often colluded in undermining their power by giving their power away to men. And men have no trouble at all in taking it. No this time, as we see a healthy resistance in women like Hassan.
Although women had originally been in the forefront of the uprising in Egypt, they have since been side-lined and marginalized with hardly any leadership roles. Fewer than ten women were elected to hold a place in the 500 seats in Parliament. However the recent demonstration gave them a collective voice that could not be silenced, one that elicited an apology from the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.
It's a complex dance for Egyptian women -- and all women -- to find their rightful place as leaders and to hold the wisdom. As Hassan points out, the girls of Egypt want to be heard in their own terms, and as separate. How can they engage like-minded men to stand with them without being overtaken by them? How to transform a system that fosters women's dependence to one of interdependence? How to stand separate from men and not alienate them?
To hold love, by its nature, demands a certain vulnerability. To not rush in and take control, to hold the space of women's emerging leadership is a vulnerable place for many men, who are used to dominating. For men to hold love flies in the face of a traditional meaning of masculinity as invulnerable, an inhumane meaning that denies men the opportunity to connect to our shared humanity, that we are all vulnerable. Instead of holding the love, they resort to violence or taking control.
And yet, that image of men holding hands as they encircle women who are realizing their collective power in their demand for justice, lingers with me and fills me with hope. Although psychologically and culturally much has to change to realize that image, a shift has begun, as if the body is speaking ahead of the mind, showing how things could be. And will be because the girls of Egypt are here to stay.