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Listening to the Women of Egypt

By Susan Carey Dempsey on February 11, 2011One Comment

It was a fortunate accident of timing that I was reading Stacy Schiff’s fascinating biography of Cleopatra at just the time that the Tahrir Square revolution was unfolding. As Schiff describes it, the Egypt of Cleopatra’s day was a time of enlightenment, especially with respect to women, who:

…enjoyed the right to make their own marriages…They inherited equally and held property independently. Married women did not submit to their husbands’ control. They enjoyed the right to divorce and to be supported after a divorce. Until the time an ex-wife’s dowry was returned, she was entitled to be lodged in the house of her choice. Her property remained hers; it  was not to be squandered by a wastrel husband…

Romans marveled that in Egypt female children were not left to die; a Roman was obligated to raise only his first-born daughter. Egyptian women married later than did their neighbors as well…They loaned money and operated barges. They served as priests in the native temples. They initiated lawsuits and hired flute players. As wives, widows, or divorcees, they owned vineyards, wineries, papyrus marshes, ships, perfume businesses, milling equipment, slaves, homes, camels. As much as one third of Ptolemaic Egypt may have been in female hands.

It was also my good fortune to be at home with my 27-year-old son Ted on the day that the news came, to the courageous protesters in Tahrir Square at the same moment that we heard it on live cable news, that Mubarak had “left the building,” and the respected military was taking charge.

We’ve watched it in fascination over the past 18 days, each with our own take. The night before, I had said something to the effect that I hoped this incredible resource, these determined, well-educated young people with the self-respect to execute this weeks-long peaceful revolution, would not go to waste. Even worse, we feared, it would be stifled or crushed. No such worry.

My son and I watched as rockets filled the air in celebration – (please don’t let Christina Aguilera near this one)  – and we remarked that this was indeed their July 4. It’s perhaps fortunate I didn’t think to propose a parallel between this youth movement and my boomer’s experience with Vietnam and Lyndon Johnson. “Hold off…it’s not ALWAYS about us.”

So much has been written about the role of Facebook and Twitter in this revolution, and social media has played an historic role in its success. Nevertheless, they are tools, which fortunately were available to young and courageous leaders at the right moment in history.

Ted shared with me his favorite video from the Egyptian protests, posted on Facebook by a young woman in Cairo. Infuriated by mocking criticism of people who had turned to self-immolation in their frustration with Mubarak’s repressive regime, she recorded a challenge  — mostly to young men — to meet up in Tahrir Square and stand up for the human rights of Egyptians. He was blown away – as was I – by her courage (yes, we used another word) and tried to imagine ourselves having nearly as much in the face  of terrifying crackdowns. 

Members of the Kefaya democracy movement prote...

Image via Wikipedia


Her message got through, in this age of social media, and I like to think that Asmaa Mahfouz would have found her voice and earned her fellow Egyptians’ respect in any age. They all have so much to be proud of today, and we do well to listen to Asmaa Mahfouz and her sisters who have stood with their brothers in the face of danger. The future is theirs, these Queens of the Nile. May the gods, and goddesses, walk with them in the years ahead.

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