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Egypt Military Clouds Women's Early Freedoms

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.

Girls on a military tank during protests in Cairo's Tahrir Square. 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.

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"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.

'A Necessary Step'

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.

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