It was the impassioned call to arms of a young Egyptian woman that helped spark the popular revolution in Tahrir Square in January of last year.
“If you think yourself a man, come with me on Jan. 25. Whoever says women shouldn’t go to protests because they will get beaten, let him have some honor and manhood and come with me on Jan. 25,” activist Asmaa Mahfouz, now 27, said in an online video posted before the demonstrations really took off.
“Whoever says it is not worth it because there will only be a handful of people," Mahfouz said in the video, "I want to tell him, 'You are the reason behind this, and you are a traitor, just like the president [Hosni Mubarak] or any security cop who beats us in the streets.'”
Like Mahfouz, many young women rose up to demand democracy in Egypt, and they were integral in directing the message of nonviolent resistance and a revolution built on the principles of equality and justice.
Like their male counterparts, they were threatened, beaten, arrested, and killed, but they stood their ground and brought down a dictator.
And they didn’t let up, keeping pressure on the patriarchal military council that took Mubarak’s place to allow for democratic elections and establish a government of the Egyptian people, but it was during this time that they began to be excluded.
What the Tahrir Square activists -- many of them young women and men who were educated urbanites -- had discovered in the midst of the revolution was that living alongside them beneath the oppressive boot of the Mubarak regime were people who didn’t embrace their progressive values.
These were the Islamists, such as the Muslim Brotherhood and the ultraconservative Salafists, who in fact constituted the majority in Egypt and who would dominate the shaping of the country's new democracy, a democracy that would dismiss the women who had fought for it.
In the discussions between the various political factions leading to the elections, the influential Muslim Brotherhood made it clear that while it would agree to women running for parliament, it would not extend that agreement to encompass the presidency.
Nevertheless, headstrong activist Bothaina Kamel defied the stigma and put in her bid as the first woman to run for the Egyptian presidency, although she ultimately did not receive enough signatures to get on the ballot, reflecting the true state of gender equality in the burgeoning Arab republic.
In general, the new government has been a disappointment for those advocating greater representation of women in politics.
In the three-stage parliamentary elections between November and January, women won just 2 percent of the seats in the lower house, which was later dissolved by Egypt's Supreme Council of the Armed Forces during the runup to the presidential elections from May to June. In the upper house, the Shura Council, women were elected to less than 5 percent of the seats.
When the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate, Mohammed Morsi, was elected president, he promised to lead an inclusive and moderate government that represented all Egyptians, 52 percent of whom are women. However, he has filled only two of 35 ministerial positions with women.
The sad irony is that women had greater representation in government under the Mubarak regime, although that should not be confused with an era of true equality and progress for women.
The reality is that conservative Islamic values subordinating women remain prominent in Egypt, as the country has replaced one patriarchal system of government with another. Therefore, it is not pragmatic to expect a sea change in gender equality overnight, especially when it requires a change in the values of a large swath of the population.
But it is undeniable that Egypt’s present political leaders owe their newly won power to women like Mahfouz and the thousands of others who helped make it all possible. Unfortunately, old values die hard.
To contact the editor, e-mail: