Mass March by Cairo Women in Protest Over Soldiers’ Abuse
Published: December 20, 2011
CAIRO — Thousands of woman marched through downtown Cairo on Tuesday evening to call for the end of military rule in an extraordinary expression of anger over images of soldiers beating, stripping and kicking a female demonstrator on the pavement of Tahrir Square.
The Lede Blog: Video Shows Egyptian Soldiers Beating and Shooting at Protesters (December 17, 2011)
Nasser Nasser/Associated Press
“Drag me, strip me, my brothers’ blood will cover me!” they chanted. “Where is the field marshal?” they demanded, referring to Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the head of the military council holding onto power here. “The girls of Egypt are here.”
The event may have been the biggest women’s demonstration in Egypt’s history, and the most significant since a 1919 march led by pioneering Egyptian feminist Huda Shaarawi to protest British rule. The scale was stunning, and utterly unexpected in this strictly patriarchal society. Previous attempts to organize women’s events in Tahrir Square this year have either fizzled or, in at least one case, ended in the physical harassment of the handful of women who did turn out.
The women’s chants were evidently heard at military headquarters as well. On Tuesday evening, the ruling military council offered an abrupt apology.
“The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces expresses its utmost sorrow for the great women of Egypt, for the violations that took place during the recent events,” the council said in a statement. “It stresses its great appreciation for the women of Egypt and for their right to protest and to actively, positively participate in political life on the path of democratic transition.”
Although no one in the military has been publicly investigated or charged in connection with any misconduct, the statement asserted that the council had already taken “all the legal actions to hold whoever is responsible accountable.”
On the fifth of day of clashes between demonstrators and military police, the outpouring of women represented a stark shift for a protest movement that has often seemed to degenerate to crowds of young men trading volleys of rocks with riot police. It comes at a moment when many protesters were beginning to despair that they were losing a propaganda war against the military rulers’ attempts to portray them as vandals and arsonists out to ruin the country.
Just two hours before the women massed, a coalition of liberal and human rights groups unveiled a plan to try to break state media’s grip on public opinion by holding screenings around the country of video capturing recent military abuses. Groups of soldiers have been recorded beating prone demonstrators with clubs, firing rifles and handguns as they chased protestors, and more than one version of soldiers stripping female demonstrators.
In the most famous of those, a half dozen soldiers beating a woman with batons rip away her abaya to reveal her blue bra before one plants his boot on her chest. Fearful of the stigma that would come with her public humiliation, she has declined to step forward publicly, but the images of “blue bra girl” have been circulated over the Internet and broadcast by television stations around the world.
In Washington on Monday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton alluded to the episode when she called the recent events in Egypt “shocking.”
“Women are being beaten and humiliated in the same streets where they risked their lives for the revolution only a few short months ago,” Mrs. Clinton said. “Women are being attacked, stripped, and beaten in the streets,” she added, arguing that “this systematic degradation of Egyptian women “disgraces the state and its uniform.”
Relatively few Egyptians have Internet access or watch independent satellite television news, and many political organizers say they believed the scene is now more widely familiar in the United States than it is in Egypt. “Four blocks from here, no one knows about this,” said Aalam Wassef, a blogger and activist participating in the plan to try to spread the images.
That may have begun to change Monday when a general on the ruling military council acknowledged the event in a news conference broadcast on state television, arguing that the scene was taken out of context and other circumstances make help explain it. A veteran female journalist covering the military rose to ask the general for an apology specifically to Egyptian women for their treatment over the previous days.
“I demand that the military council gives serious and important consideration to the issue of women, or the next revolution will be a women revolution for real,” she warned. The general, however, first tried to interrupt her to announce that the military had learned of a new plan to attack the Parliament — already behind heavy barriers — and then brushed off her request.
Many Egyptian women said later that they were outraged by the general’s handling of the question and nonchalance about the attack.
When the core of activists called for a Tuesday march to protest the military’s treatment of women — organizers on the Internet service Twitter used the tag “BlueBra” — few could have expected the magnitude of the response.
By four in the afternoon, thousands had gathered in Tahrir Square. Instead of the usual core of activists, it was a broad spectrum including housewives demonstrating for the first time, young mothers carrying babies, a majority in traditional Muslim headscarves and a few in face-covering veils. And as they marched towards the headquarters of the journalists union, two long lines of hundreds of men joined hands on either side of the column of women to protect them from any possible harassment.
The crowd seemed to grew at each step as the women in the march called up to the apartment buildings lining the streets to urge others to join — “come down, come down,” they shouted in an echo of the protests that led to the ouster of Hosni Mubarak 10 months ago.
“If you don’t leave your house today to confront the militias of Tantawi, you will leave your house tomorrow so they can rape your daughter,” one sign declared.
“I am here because of our girls who were stripped in the street,” said Sohir Mahmoud, 50, a housewife who said she was demonstrating for the first time. “Men are not going to cover your flesh so we will,” she told a younger woman. “We have to come down and call for our rights nobody is going to call for our rights for us.”
In the days since the picture of the demonstrator in the blue bra have emerged some men here have questioned her presence in the square in the first place, wondering why her husband or father let her go. Others have argued that she must have wanted the exposure because she wore fancy lingerie, or that she should have worn more clothes under her abaya.
Activists have traded advice online that any woman heading to Tahrir Square should wear more layers than ever before. And some women in the march derided the men’s criticism, one joking to the other, “It is cold — you have to wear a blanket when you go out of the house!”
Along the sidewalks beside the march, some men came out to gawk and stare. Others chanted along with the women, “freedom, freedom.”
“I came so that girls are not stripped in the streets again,” said Afa Helal, 67, also demonstrating for the first time, “and because my daughters are always going to Tahrir. The army is supposed to protect the girls not strip them!”