News Tahrir Square: How Women’s Day was ruined

As celebrations took place in Tahrir square today, on the occasion of International Women's day, what was supposed to be a day of unity and celebration turned into a fiasco of harassment and assault. Our Cairo correspondent, Jumanah Younis, who was there, reports.

New in Ceasefire, Politics - Posted on Tuesday, March 8, 2011 20:39 - 1 Comment

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By Jumanah Younis

International Women’s Day was due to be celebrated in Cairo by a demonstration in Tahrir Square, a place that has come to symbolise freedom of expression and the fight for social justice. By 3.40pm, around a hundred women had gathered in the square, equipped with banners and signs which called for a civil constitution and a role for women in building Egypt’s future. Women I spoke to expressed their anger at daily harassment in the street and on public transport, and their desire for a constitution which would guarantee their rights in the eyes of the law. “For most Egyptian men a women is only necessary in the bedroom,” one protester told me.

The demonstration quickly attracted a counter protest, made up entirely of men. The women’s chants calling for freedom, social justice and “Egypt for all Egyptians” were drowned out by retaliations from the opposing group, accusing them of being foreigners. Some even shouted “No to freedom”; and at one point a man climbed on a car and roused the crowd in a chorus calling the women ‘Shi’a’. The women’s demonstration included a number of men, and scuffles ensued between these men and the opposing group.

The small number of women present were quickly overrun by more and more men who were attracted to the crowd. Tension grew as the stand-off between the two protests entered its second hour. The opposing demonstration grew increasingly aggressive, but the women stood their ground. Aggravated by their inability to scare off the female protesters, the counter demonstration changed tactic.

In the space of a few minutes, chaos erupted. A group of at least two hundred men charged at the female protesters, who had been standing on a raised platform in the middle of Tahrir Square, and shouted ‘get out of here’. Many women were dragged away individually by small groups of men who attacked them. I remained on the platform with five other women. A small circle of men held hands around us to protect us from the crowd which swelled on all sides. Some of the men who had charged the demonstration began to voice complaints that the situation was shameful because the men were too close to us, and pushed the group protecting us to try and break their hold.

The circle quickly caved. Several women fell to the ground, and a number of attempts were made by the attacking group to steal belongings. As I struggled to stay upright, a hand grabbed my behind, and others pulled at my clothes. When I found the other women I was with a few minutes later, one told me that one man had put his hand down her top, whilst another woman had been pushed to the ground and held down by a man on top of her. The army and the police were both in the immediate vicinity.

The counter demonstration remained on the platform, chanting slogans to celebrate their victory, and every time a few women regrouped they were encircled by a mob and verbally abused. Four Egyptian women I was with later went to the army to report cases of harassment. The police continued to direct traffic around the square as the incident was taking place.

Sexual harassment in Egypt has long been considered a non-priority issue, even amongst those who participated in the revolution. A recent film that came out on the issue, by the name of ‘6, 7, 8’, received widespread criticism, and the directors were subject to verbal reprisals from the former government.

One of the core grievances of women at the demonstration was the lack of recognition of women’s role in the revolution. “We were the victims of violence [during the revolution] too,” one woman told me, “but no one mentions that now. It’s sad to say, but it’s the truth.” Protests take place in Cairo daily in the wake of Mubarak’s departure, and are viewed as a celebration of a freedom that establishes one’s humanity and role in society. As long as the same freedom is not granted to Egypt’s women, the revolution is far from complete.

Jumanah Younis is a writer and activist. She is studying Spanish and Arabic at Pembroke College, Oxford, and is currently living in Cairo.

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April Wolff
Mar 9, 2011 18:58

This appalling behavior changes my view of the Egyptian freedom movement. I try to make myself think of a larger good, then I remember that women are more than half of all people, at least in the West. In much of the world, girls are aborted or killed at birth. The Economist had a special section on how many where. China and India, come to mind, but many Muslim countries, where birth control is not available, are not exceptions.

In Saudi Arabia women are known as BMOs = black moving objects. If Saudi men wore black in summer heat, instead of white, they might be sympathetic. Or not. Since they don’t allow women to drive cars. Women in Egypt wearing the full, Taliban style cover, (feel bad for not knowing the proper name, since I do respect all religions, just think women should be able to wear what they damn well want), were just as often groped by men during the demonstrations as women wearing Western dress. If not more. is it possible men there have more respect for a woman wearing a T shirt and jeans as they did? But Egyptian men didn’t complain about their presence at the rallies in Tahrir until women tried to claim their credit for the change, and their representative rights, as Afghani and Iraqi women do. (At least token women in those governments. And as an American I’m not feeling superior, since we now have no African American senator, but that was up to the voters, not the constitution, which was changed to eliminate slavery. Why should Egypt not start right?)

My theory is that men should wear full body robes with cross hatching over their eyes, so their lust would be reduced if not eliminated. And it would be harder to grope, I imagine. A wonderful Muslim woman interviewed by Deborah Solomon in the New York Times Sunday magazine, said “The Problem with Muslim men is that they think their honor lies between women’s legs.” A big problem if you’re killed in an honor killing when you were raped, or someone doesn’t like you and says you were. And the killer either is let off by the court or serves minimal time. In many countries women are literally considered the property of men. (In twentieth century Ireland women couldn’t inherit property, so Elizabeth Bowen and her family lost a house that had endured through centuries.) But back to Egypt: Is this what the Prophet intended? His wife worked. Did she cover her entire body and face?
Would he have beaten her if she had protested for her rights? That’s not a rhetorical question. Could an Egyptian man who fought those women answer?

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