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Though Egyptian feminism is not a new phenomenon, the country sits at a precarious time in its history and a diverse group of dreamers is doing everything possible to turn revolutionary hopes into real equality for women. GlobalPost presents their stories.

Sally Zohney Egypt
Sally Zohney, who works at UN Women and has been actively involved in the revolution since the very beginning, is now part of a group called Tahrir Monologues, which performs stories from the eighteen days in Tahrir Square. She says that the media is far too quick to portray Egyptian women as victims, even though women played an equal part in the revolution. “The woman is either screaming, crying, or being slapped,” Zohney says. (Elizabeth D. Herman/GlobalPost)

A conversation with two Egyptian feminists

Sally Zohney and Mona Eltahawy sit down for a wide-ranging talk about women's rights in Egypt.

CAIRO, Egypt — A year and a half after the fall of Hosni Mubarak, the fight for women’s rights continues in Egypt as debate cycles through the international media. Within “The Voice and the Veil,” GlobalPost wanted some of those who engage in the fight for women’s rights on a daily basis to lead part of the conversation. To this end, we brought together two generations of Egyptian feminists who have been part of this revolution since the beginning. We asked them to shape the narrative in the way they saw fit, highlighting the issues they consider most pressing.

The participants are:

The Pulse: Sally Zohney

Sally Zohney hums quietly behind the scenes of the revolution. With a full-time job at UN Women and generally one or more engagements each night, her presence seems ubiquitous. She attends nearly every women’s rights-oriented conference, rally and meeting in Cairo. In addition to her full-time position as a youth coordinator, she is one of the founders of Beheya Masr, a member of Tahrir Monologues, an organizer of anti-sexual harassment rallies and protests, and constantly seeking out new ways to engage and be engaged. She is always tired, consistently busy and convinced that to be any other way in this moment would be letting her country slip through her fingers.

When asked to describe herself in one word, Zohney chose “a voice,” continually speaking for what she believes and hopes to see for her country. And though this voice may not be as loud or oft heard by the international community as others that have been repeatedly highlighted, she is certainly shaping the conversation in Cairo today. GlobalPost handed Zohney the reins of this discussion to see what this lesser-known, unwavering force of Egypt’s revolutionary youth thinks about the current state of the country’s women’s rights movement and continuing revolution.

“There’s a lot of emotional blackmail that’s happening.”
~Mona Eltahawy, journalist

The Provocateur: Mona Eltahawy

An Egyptian-American born in Egypt who has spent significant periods of her life in Saudi Arabia, the UK and Israel, Mona Eltahawy first came into the international spotlight last November after she was detained by the Egyptian military while protesting on Mohamed Mahmoud street in Tahrir Square. During her twelve hours of detention, she was sexually assaulted and had both of her wrists broken.

The violent event failed to slow her and she became an even more outspoken advocate of Egypt’s uprising and feminist movement. Her controversial piece on the current state of women’s rights in Egypt, published in Foreign Policy’s Sex Issue in May, sparked debates on issues ranging from her decision to write in English to her use of the word hate to the accompanying photographs that feature a woman wearing nothing but a burqa made of body paint to Eltahawy’s own personal background.

Eltahawy’s complex origins have granted her a dual insider-outsider perspective that informs her critique of the current happenings of the new Egypt. Often characterized as an angry feminist, hers is seen by many as an uphill battle. GlobalPost learns more about where her drive came from, and where she hopes it will continue to take her and her homeland in coming years.

This interview has been edited. It took place at Beheya Masr in Cairo on May 19, 2012.

Sally Zohney: Hi, I’m Sally Zohney and I’m here with Mona Eltahawy at Beheya Masr, a women’s rights organization. I’m here to talk with Mona about a few things related to Egyptian women’s rights and what she thinks of what’s happening on the ground. As always, thank you, Mona, for coming.

Mona Eltahawy: Thank you, Sally! It’s really important to me to meet with you and to meet with the community of groups like Beheya Masr, because it renews my own faith. I love to fight and I know that especially when it comes to women’s rights or feminism and the future of the revolution, it’s a huge fight. I don’t want the world for a second to think that Egypt has given up. Ten to twenty years from now, we will look back at this time and say — this was a turning point in global history.

SZ: Are you hopeful?

ME: I’m very hopeful, though I have learned to pace my optimism. It’s only been around eighteen months since we got rid of Hosni Mubarak. We still have a regime to get rid of, we still have a lot to fight for, so I’ve begun to think of the revolution in terms of looking ahead five years from now. It’s like what people say about running a marathon and running a sprint. I think the challenge is to try and think of how we maintain the stamina for the next five years, because it will be a long five years. No revolution gets resolved in one year.

SZ: I was at some point very optimistic, but now that we’re at the point that laws are being drafted and the constitution will be written, I don’t see women or human rights advocates — men and women — and I’m beginning to think that the fight might take an aggressive, scary, unpredictable turn. I don’t know what will happen in a few months when we have a constitution written — will it be similar to women’s previous status in the laws or will it be worse?

ME: That’s one of the reasons that I wrote my essay [in Foreign Policy] — this essay that people have gone nuts about. It was that sense of urgency that you’re talking about, that sense of uncertainty. But it was also a kind of certainty that really depresses me — and that is when countries are going through change, the quickest thing for them to get a hold of is women. It’s always women. We’re the cheapest bargaining tools.

SZ: Why?

ME: Because we’re the vectors of the future.