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Women brave attack to protest sexual harassment in Egypt

Mohamed Muslemany

Banker Marwa Salah protests against sexual harassament in Tahrir Square, Cairo, on Friday.

A handful of women saw the ugly side of Tahrir Square Friday when they were attacked and sexually harassed soon after they held a small demonstration protesting against just that.

Sexual harassment has plagued recent Tahrir Square rallies and peaked Tuesday when a woman molested by hundreds of men fainted and fell to the ground in front of a female Associated Press journalist who had to be carried away to safety herself.

Journalist Nadia Abul Magd attended the Friday demonstration as 15 women and a few men on a corner of Tahrir Square quietly held signs decrying harassment. She said that just as the protest moved to an adjoining street, waves of men fell upon the protesters, hurling broken glass and rocks at demonstrators and harassing some of the women.  Other men in the crowd tried in vain to protect them.


“We were surrounded by men from both sides and by [the time we reached the corner] I saw a wave. I saw so many that attacked some men and women,” said Abul Magd. “Every few minutes there was a wave. It was definitely a coordinated attack.”

She said the attackers intended to scare all women from the square and ruin the image of thousands of other legitimate protesters demonstrating against the candidacy of the former Prime Minister, Ahmed Shafiq.   

When we had dropped in hours earlier, a few men had already started arguing with women protesters.

“What are they demonstrating against?  Harassment! How can you distract like this from the public interest, which is getting rid of Shafiq!” shouted an angry young man. He gestured toward the throng of thousands filling Tahrir Square and oblivious to the smattering of women holding signs. “There are 500,000 people out there. This is not the time.”

Mohamed Muslemany

Lubna Ezzat, an engineer, protests against sexual harassment in Tahrir Square, Cairo, on Friday.

Two other men crowded against the short line of female protesters and held up their own anti -Shafiq fliers while venting fury at the women for staging a separate protest against sexual harassment.   

The women explained why they took the risk to protest for the right to walk the streets unmolested.

“You know when you leave home it will happen, either touching or bad language. Every day [harassment] happens here on the streets.  Some days it’s escalated,” said May Abdul Hafiz, a travel agency supervisor. She explained that women are considered at fault for encouraging unwanted male attention by dress or behavior. “You are not supposed to say anything because they think you brought it on yourself.”

Yasmin, a 28-year-old filmmaker who gave only her first name, called harassment a “disease.”

“It doesn’t matter what I wear or what age they are, old, young, no reason. We want to change this situation. … We want to criminalize harassment,” Yasmin said.

Mohamed Muslemany

May Abdul Hafiz, supervisor of a Cairo travel agency, demonstrates against sexual harassment at Tahrir Square, Cairo, on Friday.

Marwa Salah, a banker, said women’s rights will come with civil rights.

“When you have freedom you will have your rights. It’s about freedom for all Egyptians,” said Salah. “We have been brainwashed for 60 years. All people were so busy fighting poverty, women’s rights were a low priority.”

Abul Magd said the march Friday was targeted by men who wanted to prove they could sexually harass even those who dare protest against sexual harassment in order to prove that Tahrir Square is no longer safe for women or for those who try to protect them.

But the women had the last word. Friday night some of the assaulted protesters were invited to appear on a popular Egyptian talk show where they shared their concerns about sexual harassment in front of a nationwide audience.

With anger growing in Egypt over the  Mubarak verdict, protestors returned to Tahrir Square to demand justice for those who died in Egypt's revolution. NBC's Ayman Mohyeldin reports.

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