By Jessica Gray
Friday, April 1, 2011
Activist Egyptian women look forward to forming a voting bloc for the elections and celebrating newfound democratic freedoms. But an Amnesty International report of female protesters tortured by military officers is casting a pall.
CAIRO, Egypt (WOMENSENEWS)--Egyptians were glued to their televisions on Wednesday as the military handed down the country's new working constitution.
Some here would have preferred more time for emerging political factions to organize before elections that will be held by the fall, but most saw the announcement as a hopeful step toward democracy, equality and unparalleled freedoms in the wake of the January 25 Revolution.
Many here are still feeling ecstatic about voting for the first time in the largely peaceful referendum vote on March 19, the first free polling in Egypt in more than 30 years. Over 18 million Egyptians, about 40 percent of eligible voters, participated and social media Web sites lit up with testimonies.
There were pictures and touching stories of elderly voters, families heading to the polls together. Some women's lines were longer than those for men at sex-segregated voting stations across the country.
"I come from a very politically active family, but I had never had a chance to vote," said 24-year-old Dina Wahba, a political science graduate. "I woke up very early, like a kid on her first day of school . . .; It was very organized and the policeman was very courteous."
Wahba said the daughter of the doorman in her building wanted to come and vote, but she was too young.
"She got some paint and painted her finger pink... I felt like this is why we're [voting] so that girls like her will be empowered and one day go and feel that they have a voice," she said.
Wahba is unhappy with the results, however, and was part of the minority who disagreed with the 73 percent who voted in favor of the constitutional amendments.
A key sticking point for opponents was a measure that forces early elections, which gives established political parties such as the National Democratic Party and the Muslim Brotherhood a leg up.
But Wahba said the referendum was a necessary step in the political process and the constitution is widely hailed for limiting the emergency law that was used by the regime in the past to restrict public gatherings and political participation.
The provisional military government is also causing consternation in light of the harrowing tale of at least 18 women who were stripped, beaten and administered "virginity tests" on March 9 during a protest in downtown Cairo's Tahrir Square.
In response to the charges, the military posted a Facebook message on its official page, saying it would investigate the claim. The message was later deleted.
The account of the military's transgressions was provided on March 23 by London-based human rights group Amnesty International, which is calling on the government to investigate the accusations.
The organization was tipped off by a human rights activist in Egypt days after the alleged incident.
"That it took longer to come out reflects the sensitivity of the issue because it's not something people are comfortable revealing," a spokesperson for Amnesty International told Women's eNews.
He added that the El Nadeem Center for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence, based in Cairo, received similar testimony from the women and that the claims are consistent with other reports of the military mistreating and abusing protesters.
"In recent times, protesters were taken off the streets and tortured and ill-treated in the last days before [former President Hosni] Mubarak stepped down and it has been consistent following that," he said.
Amnesty does not have an office here, but representatives frequently visit and connect with human rights groups, lawyers and victims. The spokesperson describes Egypt's continuing violence against women as "deeply worrying" along with the wording of some constitutional amendments, such as the one concerning the president, which carries the assumption that the president must be male.
As widely reported last week, the Amnesty report said a group of women had been detained when the military violently dispersed protests centered in the square that day. The women were corralled, threatened with prostitution charges and then taken to a military prison in Heikstep, northeast of the capital.
One of the women, Salwan Hosseini, 20, told Amnesty that she was forced to take off her clothes and then searched by a female guard with two other women, while male soldiers took pictures of them with their phones. They were then subjected to a virginity test; those who failed the test would be charged with prostitution.
An unidentified woman told Amnesty she had failed the test, despite being a virgin, and was beaten and then shocked with electricity.
A video on YouTube was posted that allegedly shows testimony of victims of military mistreatment. A young woman dressed in a green veil and identified as Salma El-Husseiny Ghouda claims she went to the square to protect her friends being arrested when she was grabbed by a group of men "as if she was a thief or a thug" and handed over to the military. When she demanded to know why she had been arrested, an officer told her to calm down and then slapped her across the face, accusing her of being a prostitute and of inciting unrest. She said she and her colleagues were then shocked on their legs with electricity, with some women also shocked on their chests.
While international media outlets have jumped on the story, women's groups say local press coverage is sparse. They also describe a dearth of reporting on the harassment women faced during the hijacked demonstration on March 8 on International Women's Day, also in Tahrir Square.
More women are participating in awareness campaigns and politics than ever before, but there are still too few active women to affect real change at this point, says Hind El Hinnawy, a member of the new women's rights group Egyptian Women for a Better Society.
She says there was not enough time to organize a movement to demand women's participation on the committee appointed to form the first round of constitutional amendments. Her group decided to do something on March 8 to celebrate International Women's Day and raise awareness about women's post-revolution issues. Instead men at the square targeted the female demonstrators , yelling for them to "get out of Tahrir."
El Hinnawy said her group was criticized for having a Western agenda and not representing the wishes of Egyptian woman.
"What really shocked me is that some Egyptian women came to protest against us as well. They said: 'Egypt is going down and you're coming here to ask for luxuries?' We were shocked," she said.
After a few hours fraught with arguments, banner ripping and pressure from men surrounding and dividing the groups of female protesters, most left, deeply disappointed.
El Hinnawy thinks the march could have been successful with more networking and promotion ahead of time. She also thinks those participating in events like these need to identify demands that unite them.
Now the key is to bounce back from this setback and organize women ahead of the presidential and parliamentary elections later this year.
"Now is not the time for research. It's the time for speaking to each other. We're not talking to those we should," she said. "We need more women to be really passionate about this."
Jessica Gray is a Canadian journalist reporting on the Middle East from Cairo, Egypt.
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Egyptian women protesters forced to take 'virginity tests,' Amnesty International: