In the enduring images of last spring’s Egyptian Revolution, men and women rally side by side in Tahrir Square, protesting against 30 years of oppression. Little did the women know, the freedom they were fighting for would not apply to them. Since 2011, oppression against women in Egypt has not only endured, it has gotten worse.
Egyptian women have never had it easy. In 2008, the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights called sexual harassment a “social cancer.” Many women expected last year’s revolution to cure this. But a recent series of abuses reveals that women’s rights are suffering.
Through YouTube and Facebook, startling stories have surfaced, like that of the Arab-American Heather, who was attacked and groped by a mob in Tahrir Square during a peaceful protest, while police stood idly by. The story of the “blue bra girl” is emblematic of the post-revolution crisis for women. The police brutally beat her, dragged her on the floor, ripped off her clothes, and stomped on her chest. She has become a symbol of resistance, and has sparked a wave of protests.
Over the past few months, thousands of women have marched through Cairo carrying photographs from the beating and pictures of blue bras. The most recent protest was the “Million Woman March” on International Women’s Day — but it didn’t quite go the way the activists hoped. A group of “thugs” countered the women’s protest with sexist shouts like, “Go home, wash clothes!” Soon enough, the women were forced to flee as the thugs started to push and harass them.
Women who have been attacked (like Heather) have tried to tell their stories. But many Egyptians warn them against coming forward, since “it would hurt the image of the revolution.” After all these beatings and arrests, though, the world can already see how the image of Egypt’s liberating revolution has crumbled. As Hillary Clinton said in a speech at Georgetown University, “This systematic degradation of Egyptian women dishonors the revolution, disgraces the state and its uniform, and is not worthy of a great people.”
One of the most degrading practices in Egypt today is the virginity test administered by male doctors. Samira Ibrahim was protesting in Tahrir Square last March, when the police arrested her and led her to a military facility. They tortured her with electrical prods, and forced her, along with several other female activists, to strip down and let Ahmed Adel, a military doctor, “check her hymen.” Soldiers watched with cell phone cameras. Ibrahim was stripped of her dignity, but she wouldn’t keep quiet. She sued the doctor. A couple weeks ago, a trial was held — and the doctor was declared innocent.
But her efforts were not futile. “Egypt’s judiciary has let itself down, rather than me,” Ibrahim said. Her courage stirred supportive protests all over the world, from New York to Saudi Arabia, and she’s not giving up: now she is taking the case to the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights.
So how can this problem be solved? Ibrahim simply answers: “Down with the military rule.”
In Egypt’s military government, there are hardly any women in power. The former Prime Minister, Essam Sharaf, elected only one female minister to his cabinet. Ironically or tragically, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces even put an end to Mubarak’s quota that guaranteed women a minimum number of representative seats. And now, the Muslim Brotherhood, known for its strict anti-feminist stance, is becoming the most powerful political force in Egypt. Since women can’t participate in parliament, they have tried to assert their voices in other ways, but these protests have only led to more violence, with female protesters “targeted for special abuse.”
For now, hope may lie in courageous women like Ibrahim or perhaps even in emerging political figures like Bothina Kamel, the first woman candidate for president. Although polls indicate little popular support, she hopes that her persistence will challenge Egypt’s political patriarchy. It’s spring — it may be time for another revolution.
Photo credit: Al Jazeera's Asad Hashim,vImage of the Million Woman March on International Women's Day in Egypt