Women in Cairo

How inspiring was it that thousands of Egyptian women marched in Cairo last week? That things got so bad in Tahrir Square that Hillary Clinton felt compelled to cut the shackles of State Department protocol and weigh in on events she described as “shocking”?

I’d say moderately inspiring. And also, at the same time, if you plunge into the deeper context of the trigger that actually provoked the explosion among the female protesters, pretty damn depressing.

Here’s why. What the women in Cairo were marching against last week was the brutal treatment of a young victim who has since been dubbed, very significantly, “the blue bra girl”—this, because government soldiers, after storming Tahrir Square, tore off the anonymous woman’s head scarf and a lot of her clothing and beat her supine, half-stripped body. Was it the violence itself against a helpless victim that set off the women’s mass outrage? Apparently not.

“Men are not going to cover your flesh, so we will,” one homemaker confided to another protester. And yet another told a New York Times reporter: “I came so that girls are not stripped in the streets again, and because my daughters are always going to Tahrir.”

In other words, best one can tell from reading media reports on the protests, it was the stripping of a young woman, her sexual humiliation and videoed shame, that ignited all that rage—and not necessarily the beating or, least of all, the general condition of all Egyptian women, whose daily round of indignities surpass even those of the girl dubbed “blue bra.”

And yet here are some of the other outrages that by rights should have been—but were generally not—included in the women’s list of grievances:

  • According to UNICEF, female genital mutilation among Egyptian women stands at around 91 percent.
  • According to UNICEF once again, 50 percent of all female Egyptian adolescents believe that a husband is sometimes justified in beating his wife.
  • Egyptian law prohibits any woman from testifying in court in the event her recollections contradict the testimony of any man.
  • Egyptian women are prohibited from leaving the country unless they have the consent of their husbands or guardians.
  • In the event of a divorce, Egyptian women are not permitted to retain custody of children older than 12.

And, of course, the reason the rest of the world knows the latest young Tahrir Square victim only as “blue bra” is because she knows only too well—as do her angry Egyptian sisters—what would happen to her were she to reveal her real name. Indeed those marching sisters were, for the most part, either veiled or covered with head scarves. And although some of the protesters demanded female rights, quite a number confined themselves to decrying the military’s lack of “gallantry” (translation: when you strip a girl down to her bra and beat her bloody, you are possibly deficient in gentlemanly qualities).

And here is another question, or rather a set of questions. Last March a fair number of Egyptian female protesters were rounded up and transported to military barracks where “virginity tests” were administered while concealed soldiers watched. Where was the anger of the Egyptian women then? Last February, also in Tahrir Square, the CBS newswoman Lara Logan was beaten, sexually assaulted, raped manually, as she put it, by gangs of men. She was saved by an Egyptian woman—actually, several Egyptian women, who, as she recalled, “closed ranks around me.”

But there were no demonstrations. She was an outsider, dressed not in an abaya but trousers and a shirt. Where was the anger of thousands of Egyptian women then?

Where will it be tomorrow, for that matter? And for how long? And on whose behalf?


Photo Credit: Kodak Agfa

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