Thursday, 8 March 2012

Egyptian Women on International Women's Day: where from here?

Today is International Women’s Day, and women in Egypt are uneasy about where they will be same time next year. “Iran,” gloomily prognosticates a friend as she dithers between chocolate soufflé and Om Ali from the dessert buffet at lunch in a private home. “Next year we will be Iran.” Another woman nods. “We will be Saudi Arabia without the oil,” she predicts. “Next summer at the beach, will any of us dare walk around in a swimsuit?”

Several of the women present were preparing to march in today’s demonstration in Cairo, calling for a substantial representation of women on the constitutional council. Desperate measures are necessary after the near shut-out of women candidates from parliament following the recent elections. The women at the luncheon will shift from the worldly to the political as seamlessly as they slide directly from a visit of condolences to a baby shower: they dress in black and keep a bright jacket and colorful scarf in the car for a rapid change of look.

On the surface, life carries on as usual in Egypt, but look closer, and the strains show. Anywhere around Cairo, on any day of the week, an unpredictable demonstration is apt to disrupt life in the city: it could be disaffected students besieging the Ministry of Culture on the Nile in Zamalek, or disgruntled workers of a medical supplies company blocking traffic in front of the makeshift headquarters of the Council of Ministers in Heliopolis. Increasingly, the demands focus on issues of livelihood. The acute crisis in unemployment is manifest in the hordes of work-visa applicants who camp out in front of the Arab embassies in the leafy embassy neighborhood of Zamalek.

In the absence of police, the streets of many of the best neighborhoods in the city are turning into an unregulated parking lot, with cars double and triple parked on both sides of the street. On the highways and the October 6th overpasses, traffic is essentially self-regulated, and it is a miracle that it moves at all.

People are noticeably short-tempered. To object to being cut off while driving on the highway; to criticize the performance of a waiter in a restaurant; to question the bill of a tradesperson, is to risk an unpleasant argument. The civility and camaraderie of the early days of Tahrir are a distant memory.

The atmosphere of insecurity is maintained by the reports of incidents of kidnapping or robbery, infrequent, but enough to unnerve the residents of a city that was a byword for safety. But it is the uncertainty about the future that weighs even more heavily in the air. No one knows what the presidential elections will bring next June. The mother of a bride who is celebrating a lavish wedding at the Four Seasons today justifies the over-the-top event this way: “It might be the last of the big celebrations- perhaps even the last of the weddings where men and women aren’t segregated- so we might as well make the most of it!” In other words, today, eat, drink and be merry; tomorrow, we might be Iran. But there is always someone to rebut: “Fashar!” An untranslatable Arabic expression meaning; “Never!”

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