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Local view: Egyptian women are the forgotten heroes

Every time I have read an online Egyptian newspaper over the past couple of years, I have been inspired to see Egyptian women taking a stand and leading the way. Whether to overthrow President Hosni Mubarak, demand a better life for their families, refuse to be terrorized by the Muslim Brotherhood or elect a new president, women adorn the front pages.

Against all odds and after unprecedented chaos and violence, Egyptians practiced their right to elect a new president this past week with hopes for a better tomorrow (“Egyptian voter turnout low despite extra day for polls,” May 29). In so doing, they risked their lives under threat from the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, albeit with limited options of presidential nominees. The outcome of this election may have not been in doubt, but the Egyptian people are desperate for a stable, safe and prosperous country.

Through the eyes of western media and politicians, the election of another a president with a military background, such as Field Marshal Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, may seem a step backward. However, I am personally not surprised, knowing that the Egyptian army is perhaps the only functional and disciplined institution in Egypt. It was the army that took the side of the Egyptian people in their struggle against the corruption of King Farouk, former president Mubarak and the inept former president Mohammed Morsi with his Muslim Brotherhood that brought the country to its knees.

Without a well-educated, responsible population, rule of law and functional institutions, the difference between western-like democracy and chaos can be very thin.

By all measures, the past couple of years were a very low point in the history of Egypt. Never before had Egyptians killed and terrorized their fellow countrymen. The Egyptian people are moderate by nature and have a long history to prove it, a fact the Muslim Brotherhood underestimated.

From the hardship and chaos that arose since the ousting of Mubarak, Egyptian women have been at the forefront as true heroes. When Egyptian women could not take it anymore, these silent worriers took to the street to voice their despair. Under the threat of terrorist acts by the Muslim Brotherhood, they risked their lives and stood in long lines to vote on a new constitution and, more recently, to elect a new president. They brushed off sexual harassment on crowded buses and streets, swallowed their pride and carried on to make their voices heard at the election box.

In a culture that celebrates the false illusion of male superiority, these women took care of their families through unimaginable hardship for decades. In a culture that puts a premium on keeping appearances, they carried on in silence to raise families.

I write this as a man who has firsthand observations of such injustice: I was raised and cared for by such a woman, my mother.

Growing up in Egypt, my mother never went to school, and she spent her childhood and teenage years caring for her family’s animals in the field. My mother married as a teenager and, before having the chance to learn how, raised a family of her own.

As an only son, my father also was young and uneducated. A farm laborer, he was never trained to be a responsible family man before marrying my mother.

As a teenager, I remember very well how often my father was gone for weeks at a time, leaving my mother and me alone without any income. It was only through the ingenuity of my mother and the kindness of our neighbors in the village that we prevailed. I stand as a witness that “it takes a village.” If I may add: “It takes a village of strong women.”

I am forever indebted to all women in my life, from my mother to the women teachers and mentors who were there as I became a man.

And those Egyptian women who took to the street recently, demanding a better life with dignity, rejecting injustice and fear and violence, and electing a president for a country at the brink: They are the true heroes. It is because of these mothers, sisters, daughters, wives, friends, creative female artists and leaders that I stay hopeful for the future of Egypt.

Ahmed A. Heikal is a professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at the University of Minnesota Duluth.