CAIRO, Jun 15 2012 (IPS) - It is becoming increasingly uncomfortable to be female or foreign in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, birthplace of the January 2011 Egyptian revolution.
A wave of sexual assaults against female protestors and foreign female journalists by mobs of men, some armed with sticks and belts, has taken place in the last few weeks in broad public view.
An American photographer witnessed a Danish woman being seriously sexually assaulted as she was dragged into a building on Tahrir Square by a group of men. Other Egyptian men who tried to come to her aid were attacked. An AP reporter witnessed another foreign woman being attacked similarly.
Several veiled Muslim women had their hijabs pulled off and were sexually molested. The men involved tried to remove more clothing.
“Don’t go there you will be attacked, there are many bad men here,” a young man warned this reporter. “I saw a foreign woman being stripped here the other night.”
Aggravating this volatile situation has been an advertisement on Egyptian state TV warning Egyptians against talking to foreigners, saying they are probably spies working for foreign intelligence agencies. Only after the ad was heavily attacked and ridiculed was it pulled.
One of the women sexually assaulted and beaten up was accused of being an Israeli spy. She was subsequently dragged away, traumatised and bleeding, into a gas station by some employees. This probably saved her being from being lynched by the mob.
“You’re working for Israel!” yelled a middle aged man as I spoke to several protestors. That provoked some of those I was interviewing to turn hostile.
A group of about 100 women and their male supporters, protesting the ongoing sexual harrassment of female protestors in Tahrir Square was attacked by a large group of men.
The men men threw stones and bottles at the women, and at a number of men who had come to protect the women. Several gunshots were heard. The protest was organised on Twitter and Facebook by protestors with the support of civil society groups.
Some Egyptian protestors argue that the mob attacks are organised by the state, like the sexual assaults carried out by Mubarak’s security men when mass protests began against his regime in 2006.
“This is an attempt to intimidate women from taking part in the protests,” said Egyptian journalist Bisan Kassab, 29. “It is also an attempt to discredit the revolutionaries in our conservative society where female protestors venturing out at night with male protestors are viewed as morally quesitonable.
“We are not talking about assaults in a dark alley carried out by individuals but about large groups of men doing this in full public view,” Kassab told IPS.
Kassab believes the assaults are taking place at two levels. Some, she said, are “Egyptian men who are sexually frustrated on a personal level due to not being able to marry before earning enough to pay for a home and wedding amidst Egypt’s high unemployment levels. They have also been emasculated under Mubarak’s regime and they look for weak targets to make them feel empowered.
“But the other attacks are state organised and this is obvious in the way they have been coordinated. These mob attacks always happen during politically volatile times such as elections or demonstrations,” Kassab told IPS.
To a certain degree the intimidation has worked, with a number of women refusing to come back to the square in light of the harrassment.
“It’s disgusting, it makes us feel lower than men. We’ve come here to pay our respect to the martyrs who lost their lives and this is how we are treated,” Shimaan Muhammed, 23, told IPS.
“Stop calling it harassment, a march of over 100 was attacked in Tahrir. I’m sick to my stomach. It’s assault,” said protestor Sally Zohny.
“Maybe the women were wearing revealing clothing, or perhaps some of them were thieves,” one young man who refused to give his name told IPS.
“What were these women doing at night in the square? Why did they come here anyway?” asked another young man who would only give his name as Ahmed.
Meanwhile, several foreign journalists have been debating the growing xenophobia in Egypt actively encouraged by the state media who appear to be backing Ahmed Shafik, a former cabinet member in Mubarak’s National Democratic Party.
“I lived here the better part of six years before January 25 (the date of the revolution) and never felt the kind of suspicion/hostility I do now,” said an American journalist.