I arrived in Egypt in September, in the thick of a revolutionary spirit that continues to pervade the country. A week after my arrival, on September 9th, I ventured out to Tahrir, where I witnessed thousands of citizens calling for, among other requests, the SCAF (Supreme Council of Armed Forces) to step down from power and speed the transition to a democracy. That afternoon, one family in particular caught my attention. This family protested the military's maltreatment of women during the demonstrations in Tahrir. It was inspiring to see people who dared to bring the discussion of respect for women and women's rights in Egyptian society into the public sphere.
The subject of gender inequality in Egypt is an issue of personal interest, and a lack of respect for women is a noticeable trait about this country. I visited Egypt last year, under the Mubarak regime, and during my visit I was groped in the market, followed on the streets by random men and constantly harassed. This year, post-Mubarak, I face similar issues. Perhaps the most upsetting of such encounters occurred in mid-November when I attended another protest in Tahrir. Egyptians demonstrated against the military, called for justice for those who had been killed and for civilians who were unjustly tried in military courts. An Egyptian acquaintance and I ventured out to the square, and like many people, we wore a gas mask snug against our faces -- ready for what might ensue. As we were walking through the square I felt someone touching me and pressing up against me from behind. I turned to see an Egyptian man in his forties. I tried several times to stop him from touching me, but to no avail. Eventually, I plowed through dozens of people to escape from him. I was disgusted. At a protest to demand democracy, justice and rights, amidst the shooting, tear gas and violence, my immediate threat was sexual harassment.
After a weekend of protests, many injuries and deaths, the Egyptian Cabinet offered their resignation and the SCAF moved up the date for the transfer of power. This was a huge victory for the Egyptian people in their quest for change. Nevertheless, I could not get the irony of my harassment out of my mind. How can one demand democracy and rights and yet perform actions counterintuitive to that which one seeks?
The climax of this irony occurred last week when I accompanied my four Egyptian friends to Tahrir to celebrate the one-year anniversary of the revolution. Members of the Muslim Brotherhood stood at the entrances to the square, checking identification and searching for weapons and other prohibited items. Tahrir was tremendously crowded with families and citizens from all walks of life. People yelled, cheered, chanted, demonstrated against the military, made impromptu speeches and sold everything from popcorn to flags. We did not spend much time in the square; there was barely room to stand without being trampled.
Around 5pm, we exited the square to eat. At this point, I decided to leave in order to study, and said goodbye to my Egyptian comrades, who remained behind, determined to continue the celebration. Around 7:30pm, they returned to the square, and while they were walking in the square a group of men started to violently pull at my Egyptian female friend. The three other friends, all male, tried to defend her, but they were quickly outnumbered and pushed away. A group of about 30 men sexually assaulted her in the square. They violently removed her shoes and her jacket, and tried to take off her clothes -- some even resorted to punching and beating her up. She fought back as much as she could and a few others tried to help her, but they were outnumbered. At one point, a street vendor threw boiling water on her for no apparent reason. She eventually escaped into one of the tents in the center of Tahrir. A Sheikh (respected Islamic scholar and leader) came to her aid and vowed to protect her and get her out of Tahrir. She initially refused to leave, stating that she would die there. Finally, they walked out of the tent only to find that the men were waiting for her. The Sheikh tried his best to protect her but the men beat him up, knocking him to the ground. They continued to assault her, again taking her shoes and jacket, pulling her hair, and undressing her and grabbing her body. There was nothing she could do; no police were around. She eventually escaped in an ambulance even as the men tried, unsuccessfully, to pull her out. That night, other women reported similar assaults and no major media channel or outlet spoke on the subject. What is more deplorable is that these women are blamed for what happened to them, because they are women. The assaults continue in Tahrir, and other forms of sexual harassment are rampant throughout this country.
How can a functional democracy, one in which all people have a voice and the ability to influence and advocate on behalf of their interests, be implemented when women, an important part of this revolution and country, are being silenced in despicable ways? Thousands successfully ended a dictatorship and have forced military concessions. Imagine what they could do to change a culture that continues to degrade women. While, there are several women's rights groups in Egypt currently focusing on gender equity in the public sphere, without a drastic change in the public ethos, these organizations will remain on the periphery. Political change, alone, will not create a functioning democracy unless a social and cultural revolution adjoins. If the demands for democracy, that led to the initial success of the revolution, do not address the rights of women and include them in this process, Egypt will continue to face barriers to realizing and creating an inclusive democratic regime.
*The blogger is writing under an assumed name to protect her identity.