Egypt: Women Sexually Assaulted at March Against Sexual Harassment

PHOTO: Egyptian protesters shout slogans at a protest in Tahrir Square, Cairo, Egypt, June 8, 2012.
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Egyptian activists held a daylong blogging and tweeting campaign to end sexual harassment on Wednesday in response to a violent attack by mobs of men on a march against harassment in central Cairo on June 8. The men had groped and sexually assaulted a small group of women in Tahrir Square who'd assembled to protest widespread sexual harassment.

Though sexual harassment has been an issue in Egypt for years, activists say it has been used, over the past year, as a political tool by the old guard in order to counter the revolution that toppled president Hosni Mubarak in February 2011.

"Since March 2011 there has been an increased trend of sexual assault and harassment, especially by the military and police," alleged Mozn Hassan, executive director of Nazra, a feminist group.

During the early days of Egypt's revolution in 2011, prior to Mubarak's departure, activists said that protests were remarkably free of the groping and harassment that has long marked public gatherings in Egypt. But since Mubarak stepped down, incidents of sexual harassment and assault against female activists have made international headlines. Military-administered "virginity tests" of detained female protestors were followed by a brutal assault on female protestors by policemen in November 2011 and the internationally circulated photos, in December 2011, of a veiled woman beaten to the ground by soldiers, ripping off her clothes to expose her blue bra.

While the attack on June 8 was not carried out by members of the armed forces, activists say it was the same kind of group assault in which a mob of men, sometimes as many as 50 at a time, surrounded a woman, groped and stripped her, and inserted their fingers into her private parts. One female activist who said she was assaulted recounted on her blog, "The moment I fell, hands were reaching to my pants unfastening them, instinctively I fought to refasten as I was trying to get up […] the mob was all over me with seemingly no one able or willing to help out."

Some activists believe the attack was a premeditated attempt to discourage women from taking part in political life. "The men were very determined, they were moving in groups, they all knew each other and it just felt organized, reminiscent of the Baltagiya during the revolution," said Shady Khalil, a protestor who participated in the June 8 march. The "baltagiya" refers to mobs of men believed to have been paid by the Mubarak regime to attack the protestors in Tahrir Square, famously carrying out one raid on camelback.

@jazkhalifa, a tweeter participating in Wednesday's online campaign, expressed a feeling widely echoed online. "Sexual harassment," wrote @jazkhalifa, is a tool to keep women out of the public spaces (streets) and forcing them into the private spaces (homes)."

Activists concede that they cannot prove that the attack was a coordinated effort, though they claim it is consistent with what they allege has been a concerted effort by the ruling military regime to discredit the revolution and discourage women from taking part in protests.

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