April 19, 2014

Op-ed: Listen to the women, Morsi

The assertive women's vote may well tip the balance towards a more liberal democracy in Egypt in the future.

BY WAFAA WALI

I volunteered as a civil proctor in the second round of the referendum on Egypt’s new constitution. I had been part of the revolution since the beginning, have done the walks, cheering, dangerous bits and pieces, contributions, distribution of flyers and collection of data.  But I have not become a member of any political or social group. I still somehow value my position as an officially non-aligned member of the community.

I attended the crash training session on the rights and role of a civil proctor the night before the event. Early next day, a bus drove us, a group of civil proctors, to our assigned polling stations. I ended up in a school on Haram Street, where two polling stations were in operation, one for men and one for women. I had the permission to join whichever I wanted or to hover between them if I desired. I had thought the men’s station would attract me more but I ended up staying all day (from 9:00-12:30 am) in the women’s station.

The “judge”, who was not really a judge but a district attorney, was, nevertheless, maintaining order and trying to help whenever needed. There were five employees helping citizens out. Besides me, there were three other civil proctors, clearly belonging to Islamist parties.

As the day rolled on and I watched women walking in, I realized how little I knew about the inhabitants of Cairo, let alone the rest of Egypt. Most “liberals”, like me, are based in one of the affluent districts of Cairo and move mainly among similarly affluent areas. Our sole relationship with the rest of Cairo is taking a flyover on our way from one area in the city to the other (watching the “poorer areas” omnipotently from above) and mostly superficial interactions with people who we employ or meet at the workplace.

For me, the most informative aspect of proctoring the elections (which were, according to my experience, clean and honest with no incidence of rigging) was watching the women walk in and out, observing who they are, what they are wearing, their relationship to one another, their relationship to the employees at the polling stations and watching their children.

Because it was Haram, the percentage of Christians was relatively high. However, there was also quite a high percentage of fully veiled Muslim women. I watched older illiterate women walking into the voting station saying “I want Morsi”. Some women announced they are voting yes because it guarantees “security” and will protect them from the “baltageya” (thugs). I watched Christian women adamantly refuse to write using pens available at the polling station (rumored to contain disappearing ink) and insist on using their own. Children accompanying their mothers insisted on dipping their fingers into the blue ink on their way out. Most women wore sandals even though it’s December. I wondered how their feet fared in the cold when mine, covered in socks and boots, were in pain because of the cold. There was excitement coupled with anxiety. Women who arrived late at the polling stations carried shopping bags and brought their children from evening classes. They looked exhausted but still compelled to vote.

As the time passed 9 p.m., I thought the women would stop trickling in, after all this is a conservative area where women are expected to be home after dark. Wishful thinking. Women were arriving right until 11 p.m. just as the polling station was about to close. In my head I thought about President Morsi’s project of closing stores at 10 p.m. It seems he knew as little as I did.

As the doors of the school closed and we got ready to count, a lot of other civil proctors started to arrive, all men. It was hard to tell what their affiliations were, unless all Islamists have shaven off their beards. The judge asked those who wanted to participate in the sorting out of the voting sheets to take a seat around a table. I was exhausted. I watched the women proctors who were with me all day (and with whom I had hardly exchanged a word) back off. I decided to sit at the table with all the other male proctors; after all this is why I have been here all day. I wanted to see to the very end the reality of the political and social situation in Egypt.

Throughout the revolution, I have been surrounded by like-minded people. And even though I, and most of “us”, realize that “we” don’t represent the population and that we are of little relevance to the rest of Egypt, I still believed there were many of us. Isn’t it true that we filled Itihadeya Boulevard on that famous Tuesday evening?

On Dec. 21, I realized that I knew very little. We, liberals, the educated, whatever we call ourselves, are mostly disconnected from the rest of the population. Here I am in Haram, which is not even off the beaten track, and I relate in very few terms (mostly humanistic connections rather than cultural ones) to the women who came to the polling station. I was aware the vote would be a majority yes and prepped myself for it.

Sitting around the table, I started piling my yes and no votes. I realized the piles were growing at the same rate. I looked around me and saw that everybody had two similarly sized piles.

I wanted to cry.

We take a look at someone and automatically place them. The women I came across that day, mostly uneducated, poor and struggling, gave the impression of a yes vote; what we associate with conservatism, Muslim Brotherhood affiliation and/or poverty or illiteracy. But it was not yes that scored the highest that night, at least in my polling station. It was no. The difference was slight but left me hopeful.

The future of this country lies in its marginalized sectors: the women, Christians and children. Women, unlike men, mostly don’t have big egos, they cannot afford them anyway. They are the ones who suffer the most in any corrupt society. It was the women who were the first to be attacked in Tahrir when they demonstrated for women’s rights on March 8, 2011. It was the women who were raped, molested and physically humiliated during the months that followed. It is the women who are being compromised in the new constitution.

But women are resilient. They will quickly realize that the Brotherhood is not furthering their interests. If they had so far bought into the religious agenda, they will soon realize that this agenda does not include them. If more than 50 percent of women in my school in Haram can vote No, then it won’t be long before those who voted Yes will also realize how they have been tricked by religious discourse.

Before the revolution, I used to lament how, even though pioneering suffragette Doreya Shafik earned Egyptian women the right to vote (at a very high personal price), very few women vote. Today, I celebrate the endless lines of women at voting stations. Those who voted yes and those who voted no.  Regardless of the outcome of the referendum, perseverance is the only assurance this country can go in the direction we desire. As long as women are voting, as long as they are determined to create their own destiny, things can only get better.

Wafaa Wali is a Professor of Rhetoric at The American University in Cairo.

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