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Blue bras and mettle: Egypt's women stand their ground

Human Rights

A small group of female activists returned to Tahrir Square on 8 March last year, calling for women’s rights within the new political order. Men taunted them, jeering: ‘Go back to your homes where you belong!’ But women have refused to step back from an Egyptian revolution that they say is far from over.

After the resignation of President Mubarak on 11 February 2011, the Supreme Council for the Armed Forces (SCAF) quickly filled the power vacuum. In their shadow, the tussle for parliament began. Despite the critical role played by female activists in ousting Mubarak, the transitional committee chosen to develop a new constitution did not include a single woman.

Women gather outside Cairo’s State Council court to protest against virginity tests.

Amr Abdallah Dalsh / Reuters

The streets are still restless, and the SCAF has reacted with a systematic crackdown on demonstrations, particularly targeting women. While violence against women is nothing new, it is only since the revolution that women have faced the authorities on the streets in such numbers.

In November, a demonstration outside the cabinet headquarters was attacked by SCAF officers who assaulted protesters, dragging women across the ground to waiting vans. In the attack, one woman’s clothes were ripped off, exposing her underwear. Footage of the abuse, posted on YouTube, sparked a 10,000 strong march in downtown Cairo, which was mobilized using the Twitter hash tag #bluebra.

The largest female march in Egypt’s modern history, it was accompanied by crowds of men who formed a ring of solidarity to ward off police brutality.

‘The attack on the girl was so unfortunate, but it has given the cause momentum,’ says Yara Sallam, lawyer and programme manager for Nazra for Feminist Studies. ‘The army thinks that they humiliated her, but instead they have shown everyone how cheap they are.’

Reports have also emerged of detained women being subjected to ‘virginity testing’, a crude physical examination justified as a way to stop false claims of rape. But women have pushed back with some success: Samira Ibrahim, a 25-year-old protester who was forced to undergo such a test, launched a civil action against the SCAF last December.

‘The Army denied the tests,’ said Yara. ‘Only Samira agreed to testify. People were shocked that anyone was prepared to talk publicly about their virginity.’ Against the odds, Samira won her case in a landmark ruling.

However, as the political landscape shifts, it could be one step forward, two steps back. The success in the elections of the conservative Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party and the Salafis’ al-Nour party already threatens some small gains.

The Muslim Brotherhood has called for reforms to laws they say violate sharia. In the Islamist stronghold of Alexandria, al-Nour supporters recently distributed posters criticizing unveiled women.

Yara says women will have to work hard to hold their place in the drive for democratic change: ‘The momentum will continue to grow. It is time to push, and it’s time to push harder.’

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