The news accounts and photos last week of Egyptian soldiers stripping the clothes off young women demonstrators and beating them shocked both Egypt and the world. But they show the danger of abuse -- often sexual abuse -- Egyptian women face when they exercise their right to expression and assembly and enter Egyptian public life.
Sexual violence and harassment should not be the price of admission to public and political life. But as incidents in recent weeks -- and indeed, over the years -- show, women who take part in public demonstrations, cover them as journalists, or run for office are at risk. The Egyptian government and elections committee, tasked with overseeing the electoral process and security during elections, need to do far more to prevent sexual harassment and assaults, starting with recognizing how serious and common the problem is and ensuring that the attackers don't get away with it.
Describing an earlier attack this year, a young woman named Nahed told me, "The group of men... groped me in every part of my body," Nahed was describing a sexual assault during the March rally for women's rights in Tahrir Square. "About 15 men ripped off my clothes... they ripped off my shirt and pants... No one bothered to help us."
With elections already under way and with more campaigning and rallies to come, men and women alike may confront violence. But the disproportionate risk of sexual violence and harassment for women is sure to have a chilling effect on their political participation.
Preliminary results in the elections that began on November 28 already give the Muslim Brotherhood and Al-Nour, two conservative Islamic parties, a large percentage of the votes. Al-Nour and like-minded parties have publicly stated they oppose top leadership roles for women, though they don't rule out having women participate in some areas such as health and education. Only time will tell what the new constitution and government will look like, but the preliminary results add a layer of concern about the obstacles women may face.
When I interviewed Egyptian women voters and candidates recently, they told me that sexual violence and harassment are a prime concern for women, who are sometimes condemned for "betraying" their traditional roles. Some, like Nahed, told me they had been harassed or sexually assaulted when they dared to take part in public protests and political gatherings.
Another woman attacked at the rally last March told me: "A group of men tore off the banner [I was carrying], grabbed my hair and punched me in the shoulder... One of my friends had her bra pulled... I saw other girls crying."
I was in Tahrir Square that day, marching with hundreds of women. I listened as men in the square shouted at women that their "rightful" place was at home, not participating in public affairs. "Better for you to go home and feed your babies," they shouted; "Go get married."
There have been sexual assaults at other public rallies this year, without an adequate response by law enforcement agents. A woman who attended the July 8 demonstration in Tahrir said that one of her friends was groped, and that a man made an explicit remark about her breasts. A woman who demonstrated on October 9 told me that security forces attacked her, and she heard one of them say, "Those are dogs and whores."
Women candidates for parliament told me that they fear attacks on the campaign trail. While male candidates may also face attack, they worry that women face greater risk of sexual violence and harassment, as well as hostility for breaking out of traditional roles. One candidate told me that when she spoke at a political event in Qena in July, a man in the audience shouted at her that by not wearing a veil she was "un-Islamic" and threw his shoe at her.
In October, I met with Ahmad Khafagy, a former government minister now in charge of civil society relations with the election committee, who offered me hollow assurances, contending women faced no particular risks since they are held in such high esteem in Egypt. He spoke in glowing terms of how empowered women are and how they have "greater" rights than men.
But in truth, even though women came out and voted in substantial numbers in this first phase of elections, Egypt still has a long way to go before women can safely participate in public and political life. Massive reforms will be needed over time in how law enforcement and justice systems operate. But there's no time to waste. Egypt's authorities need to confront the day-to-day reality and fulfill their responsibilities to protect women who participate in public life from sexual harassment and assault.
As the elections got under way, at least, the military deployed female officers to guard polling places. The elections committee should encourage women to report threats and abuse to the complaint bodies it has set up. The Interior Ministry needs to train law enforcement personnel to respond appropriately to sexual harassment and violence. Workers at polling places should immediately report complaints. The complaints should be investigated quickly, and those responsible should face the consequences.
These minimal measures alone will not be enough to make political life safe for women in Egypt, but they will be a start. Once the harassers and attackers understand they can no longer get away with this behavior, they will back off.