Egypt - AP - Nov. 2011
Egyptian women waiting to vote, November 2011. Photo by AP
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CAIRO - Secular, liberal, feminist, vegetarian, individualist, Egyptian - this is the self-definition of Aliaa Magda Elmahdy, better known of late as "the nude Egyptian blogger."

During this past week, the young revolutionary who posted naked pictures of herself on Twitter as a protest, has hardly appeared on the various social networks. At the end of the week a video was published in which a young woman who looks very much like Elmahdy was seen being pushed, beaten and thrown out of the Tahrir Square demonstrations. On Elmahdy's Facebook page, her boyfriend claimed this was in fact someone else.

In the square itself, demonstrators questioned about this were not able to confirm the facts, but promised that if "she were to show her face here, the reception would not be warm."

The young people's April 6th movement, which started the demonstrations that led to the revolt against Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, hastened to issue a statement disowning Elmahdy and saying she is not a member of the movement.

Najwa Tamima, a student from the Giza quarter of Cairo, who says she has participated in all the demonstrations at Tahrir Square, snorted scornfully upon hearing that a group of Israeli women had stripped in front of a camera in solidarity with Elmahdy.

"They have enough injustices in Israel to protest about," she said. "They should realize they are only causing us damage. In any case we are accused of being Israeli agents. Nearly everyone who supports Elmahdy is not Egyptian and doesn't understand the social reality here."

But Elmahdy's actions nevertheless amplified a discussion that until now had existed only on the margins of the Egyptian revolution - namely, how women fit into the struggle for civil and political freedom.

There are activist women who believe that the liberation of their Egyptian sisters from patriarchal control has to be one of the aims of the revolution.

On the other side, there are quite a number of men and even women in the revolutionary movement who believe that with generals still clinging to power, secular parties facing off against the Muslim Brotherhood at the ballot box and young people being shot by police in Cairo - the time is not right to tackle this issue.

However, the sight of the long lines of thousands of women waiting patiently for hours for their turn to vote at the polling stations on Monday of this week, many more than in the lines for men, reflected a sense that an opportunity has emerged here for women as well.

"We have no idea what will come out of these elections for us," said Hanin Imam, a 20-year-old student waiting in line to vote in Cairo's Ma'adi neighborhood. "There are lots of fears about everything that is happening, but perhaps there is a chance we will achieve something here that will also improve the situation of women in this country."

Dr. Umaniya Yusuf, 24, spent last week at the Omar Makram Mosque, which became a triage center for demonstrators hurt during confrontations with the police.

"My father forbade me to come here and now he is not speaking to me," she said with an embarrassed smile. "He says it is not fitting for a girl to be in a place like this, but I had to be here with the people," she added as she looked out at the demonstrators blocking the cabinet building in protest against the appointment of another prime minister on behalf of the military council: Kamal el-Ganzouri.

She covers her head with a scarf, but wears trousers. Though she used to be an Islamist, she says, she has since lost faith in the Muslim Brotherhood movement.

"If you are making a revolution for the sake of all of Egypt's citizens, you can't forget that 50 percent of the citizens are women. Women here need to revolt twice," she says, one time against the family and again against the regime.

No Copts, no women

At many demonstrations in Cairo during the past two weeks placards with pictures of the 20 generals, members of the military council, were carried. At Tahrir, there is a red "X" on them, but at a demonstration in support of the generals in the eastern part of the city, they were carried proudly. In all these places, the fact that that the Egyptian leadership is military, conservative and male was taken for granted.

Thus far only one woman, former television presenter Butaina Kamal, has declared her candidacy for the presidency in the elections for which no date has been set. Though Kamal was a familiar face on the local television screen, few citizens have heard about her candidacy.

"A woman president of Egypt?" laughed Gamal Fayoumi, an engineer from the Giza quarter. "Sawaris will be president of Egypt before a woman will." Fayoumi was referring to Naguib Sawaris, a communications billionaire and Copt. No Copt in Egypt, never mind any Muslim, believes that a member of that persecuted Christian minority will ever become president of the largest Arab country. And a woman - that's even more unthinkable.

Women's organizations in Egypt have complained in recent weeks about the cancellation of the law that promised representation of at least 12 percent in the Egyptian parliament for women, which ensured 64 female MPs out of 518. In the elections, of which the first round was held this week, women indeed constituted 31 percent of the total number of candidates, but their places on the party lists are low and because of the large number of lists and independent candidates, the assumption is that women's representation in parliament will be very limited.

There are also women who believe this is not the time to fight for their rights separately from the comprehensive struggle. Hiba Masri, a 27-year-old tour guide who is "at Tahrir all the time because there are no tourists," says Elmahdy "is simply stupid. The minds and the outlooks of the people in Egypt are changing now in the wake of the revolution and the thousands of women who went out to vote proved there is beginning to be real equality here. It is necessary to focus on the struggle against the military council and the Islamist groups - the situation of women here is not all that terrible. We are not Saudi Arabia and apart from that, Egyptians know history and know that in the past women also ruled."

Masri is not married, but says she does not feel pressure to settle down and become part of the establishment, and believes Egyptian society is already capable of dealing with independent single women.

Noha Salama is a bereavement counselor at Al Azhar in Cairo. She is active in the Muslim Brotherhood movement.

"They invited me to run for Parliament on behalf of the movement's Justice and Freedom Party," she says, "but we have nearly 90 women running for election in the various districts and I feel I am more influential as a leader in the community."

Salama says the Islamists respect women and their roles, and their situation is improving.

"What is hurting women at the moment is not inequality, but rather the absence of security on the streets, which has increased in the wake of the disappearance of the police in various parts of Cairo and women are always a more vulnerable target," she says.

Salama is also critical of the secular feminists' approach in Egypt. "In the wake of the revolution, we have realized freedom as Egyptian citizens and as women, and this is a process, since we had not been accustomed to being free, both women and men. I believe women are equal to men, but they are different, we fill different roles and we complement each other. Feminists want to say we are both equal and identical to men and this is simply illogical and harmful."