Female Protesters Targeted By Egyptian Government, Say Activists

PHOTO: A womans hijab was torn and ripped off when she was dragged, kicked and beaten during protests in Egypt earlier this week, Dec. 21,2011.PlayABC
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The Egyptian army and security forces are targeting female protesters, subjecting them to violence, torture, sexual assault and threats of rape in line with pre-revolution practices, according to international and Egyptian human rights organizations.

"Nothing has changed overall. Law enforcement officers still feel that they are above the law and that they don't have to fear prosecution, it's a green light that legitimizes an excessive use of force, sexual assault and torture," said Heba Morayef, Egypt Researcher for Human Rights Watch.

In January, Egypt's military establishment seemed to be protecting the demonstrators, male and female, who flooded Cairo's Tahrir Square and toppled long-time president Hosni Mubarak. Now that the military runs Egypt via the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), critics say it has resorted to the same brutality once used by the Mubarak government against female demonstrators, most notably during street protests against the regime between 2005 and 2007.

On Sunday, Egyptian soldiers were caught on video beating and disrobing a veiled female protester. At least three soldiers are seen on tape exposing the young woman's midriff and bra under the black robe she wears as part of her religious veil, kicking her, stomping on her stomach and hitting her head with batons. The video appeared on television around the world and went viral on social media and the internet, sparking outrage, and even a comment from U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who condemned the "systematic degradation" of Egyptian women.

The day after the beating of the veiled protesters, thousands of Egyptian women took to the streets in the largest all-female protest since Egypt's independence, demanding the end of military rule.

Via Facebook, the Egyptian government issued an apology for the beating and for the treatment of female demonstrators, expressing "its great regret to the great women of Egypt for the violations that took place," and vowing that "all legal measures have been taken to hold accountable all those responsible for these violations." But Morayef expressed skepticism about real change in the treatment of women by security forces, noting that the apology did not include explicit orders banning violence and sexual assault on female protesters.

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Human rights activists believe there is a purpose behind the Egyptian security forces' use of violence against women. In Egypt's conservative, male-dominated society, women are not supposed to express themselves so openly in public. The violence, according to critics, serves as punishment not just for defying authority, but for violating the rules for women, and is meant to deter other women from joining the protests.

"Female activists still have the double burden of being a female who is protesting," explains Mozn Hassan, a women's rights activist and director of a Egyptian feminist organization.

Blatant physical harassment has long been a fact of daily life for women on Cairo's streets. During the early days of the Tahrir Square uprising, however, women who joined in the protests found that they enjoyed a new freedom and safety. Tahrir became an unusual "safe space" for women protesters during the 18-day revolution. Women still comprised only a small fraction of the protesters in Tahrir Square, but they were much more visible than they had been during the years of low-level resistance to Mubarak.

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After Mubarak was toppled, however, the "safe space" evaporated. Many instances of violence and sexual assault on women have been reported since, none of which have yet been prosecuted, according to HRW.

Women who have publicly reported their assaults at the hands of the military since the revolution have been doubted, shamed and accused of being prostitutes. Many keep silent because the Egyptian public still holds the military in high regard, say activists. "Women are terrified to file complaints because the military remains a red line in Egyptian society," said Morayef.

Soldiers reportedly performed "virginity tests" on seven women they detained in March during a protest on International Women's Day. The military announced on Tuesday, nine months after the incident, that the incident had been referred to the High Military Court and is at the trial stage. The lawyer for one of the victims told HRW that he was not given any information about the trial when he inquired Thursday morning.

In November Egypt's riot police, under the military's command, arrested several female journalists and protesters and "sexually assaulted and beat at least two of them," according to HRW. One of the detained was Mona Al Tahawy, an Egyptian-American journalist who described her assault on Egyptian television. "They groped my breasts […] I was pulling so many hands out of my pants, screaming, 'Stop!' I was the only woman there, surrounded by men."

After the incident, an Egyptian army colonel was quoted in the New York Times as saying, "What did she expect would happen?"

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