Thousands of Egyptian women marched across Tahrir Square Tuesday, calling on their countrymen to join them and demand an end to the abuse of women demonstrators. NBC's Ayman Mohyeldin reports from Cairo.
The plight of women in Egyptian society has been well documented over the years. From enduring daily sexual harassment to being marginalized from politics … being a woman in Egypt has been and is tough.
But there was something about the video of soldiers stripping and dragging women in the street and ferociously attacking them that has triggered public outrage here. Even as their bodies lay motionless on the concrete, the soldiers repeatedly beat them over and over …
On Tuesday, Egyptian women fought back and by doing so, pro-democracy activists say, they lifted the spirit of their cause and their country.
Thousands of women took to the streets of downtown Cairo, walking on the same Tahrir streets where days earlier they had been beaten, arrested and dragged.
They wore black and held signs that read “mourning.” They were protesting abuse by soldiers, not just over the past few days but over the past several months, which included alleged “virginity tests” against female detainees, sexual intimidation and harassment.
The women were from all walks of life. Young and old, Muslim and Christian, rich and poor walked shoulder to shoulder.
Niveen Redha, an Egyptian woman living in Canada and visiting Egypt, joined the march to denounce the military crackdown on protesters and women over the past few weeks.
Others called on people watching the march wind through the streets to join them, shouting, “It could be your sisters and mothers that will be attacked next.”
As the women marched around central Cairo, men formed a human chain around them, making sure no one could disrupt their march.
On more than one occasion men came up to me and said of the obviously peaceful protesters, “look at these thugs” -- a sarcastic rebuke to the ruling military council, which has tried to paint the pro-democracy protesters as lawless thugs.
One man said the “noble women of Egypt are the true protectors of the revolution” and called on the men of Egypt to “shave their mustaches” – telling someone to shave his mustache is often considered an insult in this patriarchal society.
Images of a veiled woman being beaten and stripped on the street, exposing her upper body down to her bra, have fueled the determination of pro-democracy activists calling on the military council to hand power immediately to a civilian government. The video and the images from Saturday’s crackdown have drawn strong condemnation from the UN and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
"This systematic degradation of Egyptian women dishonors the revolution, disgraces the state and its uniform, and is not worthy of a great people," she said Monday.
Ghada Kamal was one of the women assaulted on Friday. For three weeks she was part of an “Occupy Cabinet” protest outside the prime minister’s office. The protesters there wanted to prevent the military-appointed prime minister from entering his office. On Friday, the military entered the encampment and attempted to break up the protest.
The 28-year-old pharmacist was dragged away by soldiers who kicked her in the face, groped her and clubbed her head with a baton. While she was in military custody, she said, a soldier taunted her by saying, “We will have a party with you today and show you how much of a man I am.”
Such accounts are common among women who are detained by the military. Human rights organizations also have documented cases of women being given forced virginity tests.
In the face of mounting domestic and international criticism, the military said in a statement Tuesday on the Supreme Council of Armed Forces Facebook page that it apologizes to the women of Egypt and said it had the deepest respect for them and their right to protest and to participate in political life during Egypt's transition to democracy. It added that the military would investigate and hold to account all of those responsible for these violations.
The recent military crackdown has united Egypt’s political forces in demanding a quick transfer of power to a civilian government. The closest thing to a civilian government taking shape in Egypt is the lower house of parliament. Two-thirds of that body has been elected, and the final round of elections is expected in early 2012.
But the military says that until then, it has no plans to concede power.
When Egypt's uprising began 10 months, pro-democracy activists trusted the military would protect the revolution. Now that trust is all but gone.