By: Jumanah Younis
A demonstration commemorating International Women’s Day was attacked on Tuesday afternoon in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. More than 200 men charged on the women – forcing some to the ground, dragging others out of the crowd, groping and sexually harassing them as police and military figures stood by and failed to act.
It was a shocking wake-up call. Even in Tahrir Square, the symbol of Egypt’s newfound freedom, it seems that it’s going to take much more than a revolution to overhaul the deep-seated misogyny that some Egyptian men so freely and openly impose on the country’s female population.
The female demonstrators – myself among them – had been protesting against Egypt’s chronic sexual harassment problem, against the many barriers women face in public life, and against the pervasive conservatism that curtails the freedom of women in society at large. The women chanted slogans that had been used in the revolution itself, calling for freedom, justice and equality. But their demonstration quickly attracted a counter-protest.
The women’s chants calling for an “Egypt for all Egyptians” were drowned out by retaliations such as “No to freedom!” shouted by the opposing group. The 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 sympathetic men held hands around us to protect us from the crowd, which swelled on all sides.
Against the charge of the counter-demonstrators, 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, a few minutes later, I found the other women I was with, one told me that a man had put his hand down her top, while another woman had been pushed to the ground and held down by a man on top of her. The police continued to direct traffic around the square as the incident was taking place.
Such outrageous displays of contempt for women cannot be allowed to persist in the new Egypt. Time and time again so-called “women’s issues” have been relegated to the bottom of the agenda: we must end corruption first, we must have political freedom first, etc, etc. On Tuesday, Egyptian women said: “Now is the time.” There is no freedom for men without freedom and equality for women.
This is not a free society if a woman cannot walk down the street without fear of being harassed, attacked, or even molested. Women have a right to participate in Egyptian society as equals – and this revolution will have achieved nothing if it does not recognise the basic right of the Egyptian women to exist, to demonstrate, to work, to live and walk the streets with dignity.