06/28/2012 06:55 pm ET Updated Aug 28, 2012

Fear of Foreigners, and of Being Foreign, and a Woman, in Egypt

A "xenophobic" ad campaign in Egypt caught my eye during this past week of presidential election drama, but was quickly overshadowed by news of the military regime's power grab. Last night, however, I was transfixed as I read a British journalist named Natasha Smith's account of being sexually assaulted in Tahrir.

The attack -- which sounded eerily similar to what CBS's Lara Logan experienced last year on the day President Hosni Mubarak stepped down -- allegedly occurred Sunday, during celebration around the announcement of Egypt's first Islamic president.

I don't write about such issues without wariness over the perception of sensationalizing isolated -- albeit horrific -- incidents that can be used by outsiders to judge a nation. However, there should be something said about this ongoing intersection of xenophobia, which apparently fueled Logan and Smith's attacks, and a universal struggle against the use of the female body as a battleground.

Smith (who has not yet replied to my email for comment) recounted being pulled away from two male companions, stripped naked by a mob and repeatedly sexually assaulted. She wrote she was told later "the attack was motivated by rumors spread by trouble-making thugs that I was a foreign spy, following a national advertising campaign warning of the dangers of foreigners."

The ads showed Egyptian friends talking politics in a café while a foreigner took notes with his cell phone. "He will try to gain your trust. He'll take free information from you," a voiceover warned. Such ads, which were pulled, are suspected to have been provided by Egypt's electoral body or intelligence service.

Sexual harassment was a problem before the revolution, according to a survey by the Egyptian Center for Women's Rights. But since last January it's been wielded as a political weapon, said a 21-year-old activist who in the lead up to the presidential elections found herself harassed "more than a couple times."

"I'm afraid they're back to using this whole xenophobia and sexual harassment tactic to scare journalists and girls and keep them away from the protests," she said, in reference to cases including "virginity tests" conducted on women activists by military physicians.

Having been called a "spy" in Egypt teasingly and accusingly, I've experienced the power of rumor and truths regarding "foreign interests," namely the U.S., Israel and Iran. And I've lived the reality of a woman navigating crowds of men in Tahrir, which one time led to me being surrounded and groped.

It happened last May during a protest in Tahrir. I'd been separated from friends as I followed a crowd of men and boys who'd been running. It turned out they were chasing after a thief. Some gave up, suddenly turning to march toward me, chanting. I was filming and found myself surrounded by the crowd. Hands grabbed my butt as I dodged my way out. Later I recounted the incident to friends, mentioning I'd also experienced fondling at clubs and street festivals in the U.S., also frightening.

During that same visit, I fell in love with Egypt, the country and its people, and the idea of documenting life during revolution. I was told "welcome home" by those happy to learn I was of Iranian descent. But upon my return in July, I found something had shifted. A Palestinian American friend and I found ourselves denied entry into Tahrir by protestors acting as guards of the Square.

"No foreigners, no Americans," a young woman said after examining our blue passports. I learned the arrest of an Israeli American in June accused of spying for Israel had reignited a suspicion of foreigners. In Tahrir I began to be stopped for the first time by protestors inquiring who I was filming for.

I was fortunate to mostly blend in, unlike Smith, who wrote her blonde hair was "a beacon of my alien identity." But my experience reporting on bloody clashes for the first time in the fall revealed why many young women, and foreigners, had stopped frequenting Tahrir alone.

It was the first night of clashes, Nov. 18, and Tahrir at nightfall was a strange netherworld of rushing male bodies, billowing tear gas smoke, ambulance sirens, the boom of canisters fired by security forces, shouts and chants. I'd ducked into an alley, where a mosque was being used as a makeshift hospital.

"Can I take photos?" I asked young men blocking the entrance. One took a long drag of his cigarette and shook his head. We chatted briefly in broken English. I noticed a crowd forming, as two groups of boys began arguing. Soon I was being escorted away. One group was trying to lead me the opposite way of the other. My cell rang. A friend was in Tahrir, sent to find me by friends worried about me being alone.

He confronted the boys and told me after, "Never come here alone," adding that one of the groups were apparently allies of security officials. "They wanted to turn you over because you're a foreigner," he said.

Egypt is a country undergoing revolution, and with that comes blood, chaos, and manipulation. I'd been called "a spy" at the unlikeliest of times, even while filming a segment on Ramadan for Dutch TV. The accusations had never endangered me, however. And while it made little sense that someone openly filming would be a spy, I understood that fear supersedes common sense. Mix fear and accusation with a mob, you may have an attack, which is what Logan and Smith both experienced.

I lived in Egypt another seven months without experiencing much more on the street beyond catcalls or marriage proposals. I even shared with friends how much less I felt harassed in nightclubs, compared to the U.S. But I heard stories. A Dutch Iranian told me her cab driver tried to assault her. An Egyptian told me she knocked a man to the ground in Tahrir after he grabbed her butt. An Egyptian reporter told me she saw a European coworker assaulted by a crowd of men in Tahrir.

I heard many theories why such incidents persist, and I learned of the launch of an activist website, "HarassMap," where women can report experiences of sexual harassment. I saw how leaders set the tone for a country. This March a military tribunal cleared of all charges a military physician who had followed regime orders to force women protestors to strip their clothes and have their hymens checked.

This May, Egyptian journalist Mona Eltahawy stirred controversy with her Foreign Policy piece "Why Do They Hate Us?" - the "they" being Arab men, and the "us" being Arab women. Eltahawy had been assaulted in November by Egyptian security forces.

Just a month after her assault, amateur video famously captured security forces dragging and stomping on a woman protestor in Tahrir, exposing the blue bra beneath her black niqab. Columnist Ahdaf Souief wrote about the attack: "A symbiotic relationship springs up between behaviors...The regime's thugs molest women as a form of political bullying and harassment of women rises to epidemic levels."

Earlier this month, a mob of hundreds of men assaulted Egyptian women holding a march to demand an end to sexual harassment in Cairo. In women-led protests I had attended, men had protected women by encircling them, holding hands. (While commendable, the need for the act was called into question by activists). It was mostly women who chanted, "Egyptian women are the red line."

Some Egyptian men have been speaking out publicly. The year before the revolution, director Mohamed Diab released an award-winning film about the sexual harassment of women in Egypt, called 678. This month, a PSA posted on YouTube shows Egyptian men speaking out against sexual harassment.

"You're making us all look bad," and "What you're doing is disrespectful," young men say halfway through the PSA, before a black screen flashes with statistics: "83 percent of Egyptian women and 98 percent of foreign women in Egypt have been harassed."

Nonetheless, a young Egyptian woman commented when posting the video: "I guess these respectful 'men' make up around 2 percent of the male population in Cairo that needs a serious psychotherapy program."

It'll be a long time coming before seeing societal-wide change regarding the treatment of women in Egypt -- and around the world. Men need to join our calls, and to teach boys. Even in the liberal bubble of the U.S. where I live, I recently observed a life-skills class for high school boys where a male teacher had to hold a discussion explaining the misogyny behind a common saying, "Blame it on a Bitch."

Perhaps what has impacted me most about this latest attack in Egypt is the way that Smith, a white foreigner, concluded her account -- without condemnation of a religion, a people or a nation; and by acknowledging the universal scope of the problem. She wrote that she planned to "return to this wonderful country and city that I love, and meet its people once again."

"I will overcome this and come back stronger and wiser," Smith said. "This is a consistent trend and it has to stop. Arab women, western women -- there are so many sufferers."