Egypt’s Women Protest Despite Brutal Military Attacks

Cairo – Several army soldiers slapped, punched and kicked Mona Seif, hitting her with wooden batons while they dragged her inside the Cabinet Building shortly after they raided Tahrir Square. Minutes earlier she had been told to leave, but she refused unless they released a child she was protecting amid the violence. “The army officer was infuriated when I told them to release the kid,” said Seif, a 25-year-old activist who leads the No Military Trials for Civilians movement. “He ordered the soldiers to take me where they will take the child.”

A young army officer in charge of the detention room continuously cursed at the female detainees. “I am as old as your mother; have some respect for me,” said Khadiga, a woman in her 60s who sat on the floor beside Seif. “The officer exploded when she said that. He kept slapping her over and over until she apologized,” said Seif. “I thought they distinguished between younger and older women. They don't.”

“It's a planned strategy,” she said. “… They want to scare off any girl thinking of joining a protest.” Seif was detained around the same time that footage was taken of several army soldiers stripping and brutalizing another female protester, a video watched by millions worldwide. This week, thousands of Egyptian women protested in Tahrir Square against military generals who silently watched their soldiers lead assaults on female protesters.

The female protest came despite an apology published on the official Facebook page of the ruling military council, a failed attempt to defuse public anger that backfired. “The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces expresses its deepest regret to the great Egyptian women after the violations committed during the latest protests. The council affirms its respect and appreciation for Egyptian women and their right to demonstrate and participate positively in political life,” said the statement.

Maha el Samadouni, a 62-year-old female protester, refused to accept any apology. “Our traditions define women as a red line that should never be crossed,” she said. “It's an unprecedented crime in the history of Egypt. The only way to stop this is by making an example of those who committed such a crime.”

“Women came out wearing black to mourn the dignity of Egyptian women that was killed at the hands of the military,” added Samadouni. She described the ruling military as “liars who denied any responsibility.” Despite the shock caused by video images showing horrific assaults by soldiers on protesters, some seemed to have little sympathy for the victims. “I am totally against violence, yet I don't think it was right for this girl to be on the street at 3 a.m.,” said Gen. Sameh Seif el Yazal, a retired military and intelligence officer who now leads a strategic research unit.

But the now-well-known video of the female protester under attack was shot in broad daylight. “Yes, but she was in other videos at 3 a.m. on Tahrir Square,” replied Yazal. Egypt's military, which took over on Feb. 11 to replace the deposed President Hosni Mubarak, did not take long to prove that it is ruthless.

On March 9, troops raided Tahrir Square and detained more than 150 protesters, including 17 women. After a lengthy torture session at the Egyptian Museum, which was turned into a temporary detention center, seven of the female protesters were forced to undergo virginity tests. Only one pursued legal action. “It stems from the culture,” said Nehad Abolkomsan, a lawyer and director of the Egyptian Center for Women's Rights. “People think it's acceptable to do anything to a woman if she goes out of line by their standards. The officers cannot view their female victims as sisters or mothers because of their backward traditions.”

“It's a cultural disaster, the same beliefs that justify harassment for sexual violators who blame their victims and say she was wearing tight jeans.” Abolkomsan said that Egyptian females are “imprisoned between political pressures and other social and religious taboos. Some of the most well-known activists don't tell their families about their activities.”

“The only female that pursued legal action against the military after forced virginity tests was backed by her family, and this is a rare case,” said Abolkomsan, referring to Samira Ibrahim, the victim who sued. “A female protesting in public comes from a background that broke the backward constraints of being ashamed of public participation. On the other hand, the community considers them sluts and the military shares the same view,” said Abolkomsan. She rejected the military's apology as “insufficient and useless.”

A representative of Human Rights Watch in Egypt, Heba Morayef, argued that “military officers are preaching to soldiers that protesters are criminals destabilizing the country. It shows in the brutal attacks on protesters. It's not an attempt to disperse a protest, but it's a hostile personal attack. They are filled with rage and hate toward protesters.”

As for the fair and transparent investigations promised by the military, Morayef said, “We don't know the names of a single officer that is standing trial for any violation, in cases of serious violations such as murder and sexual assault. It means that the military decides the accusation and the flow of trial without any civilian, independent judiciary participation. “They see themselves as superior,” Morayef said. “They never see themselves as subject to any form of civilian monitoring, investigation or prosecution.”

© 2011 McClatchy-Tribune Information Services
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