A Revolution of Their Own

02/07/2011 03:50 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In images of the uprising in Egypt -- the multitudes of rock-throwers, street worshipers, bloody and bandaged faces with eyes that burn through the lens -- many were missing. You don't have to be a foreign policy expert to see that.

The women and girls of Cairo were nowhere to be found (in any numbers) in pictures of the epic strife in Tahrir Square. The ancient city's men and boys were the predominant players staging the conflict on both sides. In the beginning, they composed the nonviolent challenge to the authoritarian government, defying tanks out on the streets and bridges over the Nile River in a rush to revolutionary freedom.

The road ahead, expected to lead to a reform government led by Egypt's new Vice President Omar Suleiman, opens up an unheralded opportunity for inclusion -- if the world continues to closely watch Egypt take baby steps toward a government of the people. The United States, alone, has the power to press for our dearest democratic principles to be enshrined in the storied land.

To review the week's events, thousands of men formed the brigade of longtime President Hosni Mubarak's "supporters" which came out to crush dissent. Scenes of tumult, violence and suppression were getting darker by the day, and journalists are under siege as they try to get the story out to the world.

So where were the women and girls? They should have a revolution of their own, but they are probably tending to home fires, stitching the seams of private life together. As is generally the case, Arab women are kept at the periphery of public view in their culture and society, silenced and shrouded in second-class status. Their absence at the televised revolution has hardly been remarked upon by the media.

It's worth noting there was female participation in the April 6th youth movement, which used social media to put this process in motion. And a New York Times column reported meeting an 80-year-old Arab feminist out in the exhilarating public scenes.

Even so, here's what the Egypt pictures say to me: if we in Western democracies accept the systematic shabby treatment of women in the new configuration of Egypt, then true democracy shall be a long time coming to the Arab street. Populous and urbane Egypt is certainly not close to the worst case when it comes to oppressing women and girls.

Like the dog that didn't bark in the Sherlock Holmes mystery, women in Egypt and the Arab world are very much there as witnesses and indeed hold the key to helping their countries make the transition (Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's phrase) to creating government by consent. For too long, we've looked the other way, especially when it comes to our ally Saudi Arabia. Too many women there live under glorified house arrest.

Authors, generals and policymakers are taking note. Greg Mortenson, author of Three Cups of Tea and Stones Into Schools, has a stake in building village schools that educate girls in Afghanistan, a step which he believes lights the way for civil society coming to bear from within on a repressive culture that has confounded outsiders. (Illiterate women in Afghanistan, and there are many of them, are apt to say they are "blind.")

General David Petraeus is a believer in Mortenson's peaceful approach to connecting cultures, as are other Army commanders familiar with the shameful way women are treated in Pakistan and Afghanistan, our two theaters of war. The thinking goes that in the future, the Pentagon should shift its focus to empowering the other half of the young Arab population as it grows all over the Middle East, since they haven't had any luck in building bridges to young Arab Muslim males.

As for policymakers, Clinton must be front and center in stating the case that Arab women deserve human rights and full citizenship if, as anticipated, a fledging democracy develops in Egypt or another Arab nation. She has sounded such a call before, notably in Beijing as first lady. We have the power and influence to put that into practice; our military aid and involvement with Egypt lies so deep that most of their top military brass was actually here on a visit when revolution broke out on the streets of Cairo.

Note to Clinton: Tunisia's recent revolution rocked this cascade of democracy. The status of Tunisia's women is among the highest in the Arab world. Let me suggest, that cannot be mere coincidence.