Egyptian woman: attackers were "pulling my veil off" at protest amid reports of surge in harassment


An Egyptian woman holds the widespread picture of a woman who was stripped and beaten by riot police during clashes last week as Egyptians gather for a protest in downtown Cairo to denounce the military's attacks on women and to call for an immediate end to the violence against protesters on December 20, 2011.


Khaled Desouki

CAIRO, Egypt -- Nihal Saad Zaghloul, 26-year-old Egyptian IT consultant, told GlobalPost she was assaulted at a recent protest, describing assailants "pulling my veil off" as opposition leader Mohamed El-Baradei condemns reports of growing harassment against women. 

An anti-sexual harassment march held in Cairo on Friday to protest the rise of assaults on women in Tahrir Square was overwhelmed by attackers, reported SAPA

One of them was Zaghloul. She told GlobalPost that "someone touched me from behind" during the Friday protest, but she was able to push the assailant off and run to safety. She decided to join the demonstration after being attacked in Tahrir Square on June 1. 

“They were like grabbing me, groping me," she said, describing the June 1 assault. "They were pulling my veil off."

“Tahrir, I’ve been going there a long time, and it’s kind of a symbol of everything we’ve been doing for the revolution and freedom, and now they’re turning it into something ugly," Zaghloul told GlobalPost. "I feel angry and frustrated. I won’t let it go on. Someone will be punished for this.”

Meanwhile, political heavyweight El-Baradei wrote Friday on Twitter: "I apologize in the name of every Egyptian who knows the meaning of religion, values and ethics."

The comment from El-Baradei, Nobel Laureate and former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, reflects the growing importance of culturally sensitive issues the widespread harassment of Egyptian women. 

The Associated Press cited several activists saying such attacks against women have risen sharply since protests began to erupt again in Tahrir Square following the trial of ousted leader Hosni Mubarak. 

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Egyptian women have long faced widespread harassment but have been loath to report violations due to social taboos and safety fears. Education and the role of religion also play a complicating role, with many women are taught to accept male treatment towards them, but such thinking appears to be changing. For example, 70 percent of Egyptian women said a husband is “justified” in beating his wife for refusing sex, according to a 1995 survey -- a figure that fell by more than half (to 34 percent) when asked again in 2005

Still, it's bad. A 2008 survey by the Egyptian Center for Women's Rights found that 80 percent of Egyptian women say they are sexually harassed. A March protest held to mark International Women’s Day was attacked by a violent mob that severely injured several women protesters.

But recent anti-sexual harassment protests and initiatives like HarassMap, which alerts people about areas with high levels of harassment by SMS, highlights a growing resistance to abuse and assaults against women in Egypt.

Heba Habib, a HarassMap core team member, told GlobalPost that "we were violated because nobody cares." 

"People are angry again, and usually when people are angry in this country they take it out on people they regard as weaker, it's just the mechanics of oppression," Habib said. 

Last year's protests in Tahrir Square, the epicenter of opposition activity that overthrew Mubarak, were notable for their respect toward women and low levels of harassment.

Habib said the crowds there today lack a unifying call -- some are angry about Mubarak's trial, others are frustrated with the country's first round of presidential elections, others are there to demand improvements in the economy, and so forth -- and because of this, demonstrators do not feel responsible for safeguarding the wider movement's dignity. 

"Enough is enough," 22-year-old activist Abdel-Fatah Mahmoud told AP.

"[The harassment] has gone overboard. No matter what is behind this, it is unacceptable. It shouldn't be happening on our streets let alone Tahrir."