-Essay-

CAIRO — They did not expect the joy and the despair, the potential and the tribulations that have spanned six long years. They were allured by calls for freedom and social justice before they were hit hard by authoritarian regimes and objectified by the region's Salafists in both the East and the West.

They held on to their right to be present in the streets before the parliaments. They were active online and led various national committees on the ground, where they organized and mobilized for syndicates more than working toward positions in political parties. They were part of the masses that faced rubber bullets and live ammunition. They stood their ground in the face of physical harassment, smear campaigns, detention, torture, displacement and captivity. They did not retreat or long for a patriarchal sanctuary.

We all recall the female doctor in the makeshift clinic who removed the bullets from the protesters' bodies and numbed the pain; the female journalist documenting the injured and the dead; the female student exposed to virginity tests before being detained. We recall that brave girl, a survivor of rape, who had to pull through the trauma of the crime and familial stigma. She endured without blaming the revolution or its aspiration for change, without internalizing society's desire to erase her from memory.

How can we forget the mothers who, fearing for their children, objected to their participation in protests in vain, only to receive news of their imprisonment, forced disappearance and torture with tears of defiance? How can we forget the young women who lost their loved ones in Shiqa, Aleppo, Maspero, Qasrayn, Benghazi, Aden, and how they have survived alone?

Who among us is not astounded by the bravery of female lawyers and activists who long for a glimpse of sunshine while they are unjustly imprisoned in horrid cells? Or those who have memorized the shapes of the stones of prison gates from their long waits to visit their loved ones? Who among us is not proud of the women working in rehabilitation centers who have prepared many groups to help sexual assault survivors, and worked on documenting the effects of the counterrevolution's psychological and physical abuse of the female body? Who is not proud of our feminists?

Egyptian women protesting violence against women in Cairo on Dec. 22 — Photo: Amr Sayed/APA Images/ZUMA

How can we forget the Syrian women refugees in Arab and Western countries who startle us with their diligence to make ends meet for their families? As they cook, sell and move endlessly, they dust away the pitfalls of pity and staleness of life in the camps.

Before ministers, entrepreneurs, princesses, ambassadors or political experts, these women give meaning to International Women's Day in the Arab world — a meaning that comes with a heavy price and hard work.

The women of the Arab world have protested, authored, nursed. They have been caretakers, legal councils, rights activists. They have collected funds for the camps and taught their children. And all their efforts have given room for Arab women to narrate their own stories as protagonists.

The story of Arab women today surpasses international treaties such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), or the United Nation's Millennium Development Goals, whose aim was to promote gender equality and empower women. The story of Arab women today derides any hyperbolic enlightenment rhetoric; it is a narrative that defies all the Islamic State-like religious bigots — both the barefaced ones and those claiming to be modern.

It is a narrative that declares that we, the women, have fought as women. We have engaged in war, just like men. Our youth have joined in the fury of street battles. We have supported our families. We have traded in the markets. We have experienced fear and fled for our lives. We have endured loss, poverty and displacement in the quest for freedom and a just future. We will never allow the meta-narratives to crush us or subdue us under empty religious and national slogans.

We have a voice now, one that we did not acquire through education or by inheritance, one that was not granted to us by governments. We acquired it the hard way through our everyday resistance and endurance amid a global scrabble for money and arms.

We are the protagonists of our own story. We no longer accept being divided and categorized as mothers, martyrs, poor, intellectual, immigrants, artists ... We are part of a whole. We move gracefully and steadily between all roles. We mend our wounds and move on.

If you can only realize how much has changed and disappeared thanks to the new meaning of the Arabic feminine.