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.
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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