A New Round of Assaults on Egyptian Women Protesters

June 12, 2012

Egyptian Women Protest in Cairo
Egyptian women demonstrate in Cairo MOHAMMED HOSSAM/AFP/Getty Images

When Egyptian politics get hot, it’s women who most often feel the flames. So when a group of Egyptian women took to Tahrir Square this past Friday to denounce the frequent assaults on women activists, it wasn’t surprising that they themselves came under attack.

According to Amnesty International, the women were calling for an end to sexual harassment of woman protesters when a mob of men came upon them and groped and punched the activists.

These women stood up to demand an end to sexual harassment. What they got was intimidation and sexual assault.

At a critical time for Egypt’s future, the attacks underscore how women’s rights to full political participation are central to the spirit of the 2011 uprisings and the hope that Egypt can develop a new political culture based on respect for all human rights.  The attack on the women activists goes straight to the heart of the ruling regime’s efforts to maintain its old practices.

This was the second report this month of women protesters being assaulted in Egypt.  Nihal Saad Zaghloul told Amnesty International that she and three friends were attacked by a large group of men on June 2 in Tahrir Square as they joined a protest after the verdict in Hosni Mubarak’s trial. She was pushed and groped and her headscarf pulled off before some men in the square came to her aid.

The legacy of attack on women’s activists is long.  Other women filed complaints against Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) for violence targeting women at public demonstrations, including protests in December 2011 in front of the Cabinet building in Qasr El Einy Street, where protesters were demanding an end to military rule and which left at least 17 people dead.

A video of military police dragging two women, one of whose clothes had been torn off, along the ground before severely beating and stamping on them was circulated on the Internet, provoking widespread outrage.

And there’s the infamous “virginity tests” forced upon 18 women protesters when army officers violently cleared Tahrir Square of activists in March 2011.  All of these practices mirror the tactics used by the old Mubarak regime to muzzle civil society.

The long history of attacks on Egyptian women standing up for their rights is depressing and a significant sign of how the activists who were in the front lines of the 2011 uprisings have been marginalized.

Many activists candidly told Sarah el Deeb of the Associated Press that the attacks were meant to demoralize activists and women and undermine the spirit of the 2011 uprisings.

Yet within these fears, there is also indication of what has changed from pre-uprising Egypt.  Egypt’s ruling class may still resort to tried and true methods of silencing civil society, but Egyptian women activists insist they’re not going back to the bad old days. There’s a determined resistance that brings them back to the streets and leads activists such as Mona Seif and others to start organize their own patrols of Tahrir Square to protect activists from harassment.

They’re asking for our support.  Amnesty International is demanding that the Egyptian government immediately launch an investigation into reports of sexual harassment and assaults against women protesters and bring an end to the impunity these attacking mobs enjoy.  (You can make the request by calling the Egyptian Military Attache’s office in Washington DC at 202-333-1283.)

They’re also asking us to document the abuses so that we can help them let the world be aware.  From women’s institutions such as the Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Torture and Domestic Violence (which in its very mission links the abuses of state and domestic terror) to journalists like Mona el-Tahawy and young activists such as Asmaa Mahfouz, the women of Egypt aren’t backing down.  After a year of slow progress and broken promises, their message remains: If the world stands with them, they will face up to anything the mobs throw at them.