Women have varying degrees of power in the public sphere of Muslim life. A working- class woman in Indonesia has far less constrictions on her than her Afghan equivalent, whereas in Iran and Iraq the tension is palpable between the aspirations of women and the efforts of the theocratic forces to keep them second-class and behind the veil.
In Egypt we see all currents at play. In rural areas, traditions remain largely unchanged, but very few families don't have at least one male family member who hasn't emigrated to a big city for work, and satellite dishes and the Internet guarantee that no one is unaware of the progress of women in the world. The difficulty of young Egyptian men in getting the wherewithal to finance a household has created huge discontent among all young people; in Egypt, the family is the key to social standing.
Women, of course, do the vast majority of child-rearing. They instill attitudes in their children that reflect the widening world they have seen on subtitled soap operas or segments on Al-Jazeera. Tahrir Square is filled with women -- unaccompanied by male relatives in a way that would be unthinkable in more conservative Arab states. Chanting shoulder to shoulder with other demonstrators, they are not tarred by social approbation for mixing with unrelated men in public.
I am not privy to the conversations at home between military officers and their wives, but there is every reason to believe that the mothers of demonstrating sons or daughters have been applying considerable pressure behind the scenes. This is a role fully sanctioned in Muslim life, as the wife is often the de facto head of household behind closed doors. In addition, Egypt has a particular national pride due to its crucial historical significance to the world; English and French is widely spoken, guaranteeing considerable Western influence. Twitter and Facebook also do not discriminate on the basis of gender; anyone with access to a computer or cellphone can express herself nationally and even globally.
The role of women in the Egyptian revolution has not generally been highlighted, but the United States and Western Europe would do well to engage with whatever civic and cultural groups, as well as social media, that are manifesting the desires of Egyptian woman. The military, and the men of the Muslim Brotherhood have wives, sisters, mothers. The power that wield may be less obvious, but it is considerable.
Follow Mark Olmsted on Twitter: www.twitter.com/MarquisMarq