Egypt: Why the Kiss Picture Is So Radical

As a picture of compassion between combatants, the image of a plump Egyptian woman kissing a green-eyed soldier on the cheek during protests last week was a powerful statement of national unity.

But it was also far more radical than that in a country in which men and women are barely tolerated holding hands in public in the most liberal precincts of comparatively Christian Alexandria, and where public displays of affections are frowned upon and likely to be met with cutting glances and vicious neighborhood gossip elsewhere.

Young Egyptian men may dress in the international style of jeans and soccer T-shirts, but they go home to families where women wear headscarves. An estimated 90 percent of Egyptian women wear the hijab, and more deeply religious women cover not just their heads and ankles, but even their hands, wearing black gloves along with their black face veils, headscarves and abayas year round.

In short, when it comes to women in public life, Egypt can be pretty conservative. It's not Saudi Arabia or Iran, but it's also not Lebanon.

Indeed, when Egypt's culture minister called the hijab "regressive" in a 2006 newspaper interview -- the headscarf has gained popularity over the past decade -- more than 100 members of parliament called for his resignation.

And while women have flooded into the universities, their participation in parliament was, until a quota system was instituted for its lower house in 2010, virtually non-existent. Only nine seats in the People's Assembly were won by women in the 2005 elections -- elections widely marred by fraud -- making them 1.8 percent of the body.

An earlier quota for female legislators that had increased women's participation in political life during the 1970s was repealed in 1986. And so Egyptian women's participation in public life has waxed and waned.

(For the challenges faced by those trying to organize on behalf of women, see my 2006 Cairo interview with Egypt's first female director of public health, Nawal el Sadaawi. Faced with repressive state tactics that bar any significant associations from arising on the one hand, and Islamist opposition to women's rights on the other, she has found the process slow going.)

As the Brookings Institution's Shadi Hamid put it shortly before the elections that saw the quota law go into effect: "The culture in the Middle East now is not supportive of active women's participation, is not supportive of women's leadership in senior positions. And that's why when there are free and fair elections, people in the Arab world don't vote for women."

So while we are inundated by powerful Twitter images and Facebook albums of women on the frontlines of the Egyptian uprising -- and while there are doubtless many brave women defying both their state and their society to protest the continued tenure of President Hosni Mubarak-- we ought to understand those pictures for the truly exceptional instances they are.