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02.16.11

Egypt's Women Rally Behind Lara Logan

The sexual assault of CBS correspondent Lara Logan sheds light on the constant harassment and violence women face across the country despite the revolution. Ursula Lindsey reports.

Almost everyone in Egypt has now heard the news that on February 11, the night when millions of Egyptians were celebrating the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak, CBS correspondent Lara Logan was beaten and sexually assaulted by a mob.

Logan faced an ugly side of Egypt that Egyptian and foreign women here are all too familiar—and fed up—with. What makes it all the more tragic is that it happened at a time when many here were celebrating women's mass participation in the protests, and their sense that they had reclaimed the streets.

The reaction here to the attack on Logan has been consternation. "Lara Logan, I apologize sincerely with all my heart," reads an online petition being circulated Thursday. "To every girl, woman, mother harassed, I apologize sincerely with all my heart. To my mother nation Egypt, I apologize sincerely with all my heart. And I promise you all that I will try the very best that I can to bring an end to this, in the quest to have our sisters 'Walk Free.'"

"We are all Lara," says Engy Ghozlan, 26, a co-founder of HarassMap, a digital map that monitors incidents of sexual harassment against women here.

Ghozlan and other activists have been at the forefront of a battle against harassment and violence against women here. Even as more Egyptian women than ever attend university and enter the workforce, they have had to contend with a society that still considers unaccompanied women out in public as “fair game” for sexual comments, advances and worse.

I've lived in Egypt since 2003 and much as I love it here I am sometimes disheartened and frustrated by the constant harassment. Most of it is obnoxious but innocuous—men whispering things under their breath, singing songs, and brushing up against me.

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Sometimes, though, harassment can be truly frightening. In 2006, online activists posted videos of women being chased by crowds of men on the streets of Downtown Cairo during the Eid festival. Even as former First Lady Suzanne Mubarak downplayed what happened, the videos caused a scandal and launched a national debate. Harassment has become a high-profile social issue here—whether because attacks are increasing, or awareness is, remains unclear. Just last month, Egyptian cinemas screened a new and much-talked-about movie about sexual harassment.

A survey released in 2008 by the Center for Women's Rights found that 83 percent of Egyptian women and 98 percent of foreign women had experienced harassment. Still, many here remain in denial about the extent of sexual violence and the very nature of harassment. Until recently, there was no word in Arabic for it—with people instead using the much lighter terms mu’aksa ("flirting, teasing").

When I reported on the subject a few years back, some men I interviewed said only girls who dress provocatively get harassed; other denied flatly that harassment takes place at all.

And many women remain uncomfortable discussing sexual harassment or assault because they fear they will be stigmatized or blamed for it. When I reported on the subject a few years back, some men I interviewed said only girls who dress provocatively get harassed; other denied flatly that harassment takes place at all.

Resorting to the police has been largely useless; they are often accused of harassment themselves.

Under these circumstances, female journalists and photographers face particular challenges doing their work. Being a foreigner in and of itself can attract unwanted attention; add to that that they are often working alone, and heading into the middle of all-male crowds.

After a terrorist bombing in 2004 in the historic neighborhood of Khan Al Khalili, myself and two female foreign journalists trying to cover the attack were surrounded by young men who formed a circle around us and locked their arms. Someone tried to unzip the pants of one of the women I was with. A middle-aged man dragged us to safety.

Often, female reporters don't focus on what happens to them because they don't want to appear weak or whiny or get side-tracked from the main story.

In 2004, during demonstrations by the opposition against President Mubarak, government-backed thugs attacked protesters and journalists. I just happened to leave half an hour before the thugs sexually attacked all the women there, groping them and tearing their clothes. Sexually attacking and humiliating female protesters has long been an effective regime tactic to scare half the country off the street. The next day, the state press accused one of the female demonstrators of undressing herself in public.

When pro-government groups attacked the protesters in Tahrir Square, there were also reports of sexual assault.

When they aren’t orchestrated by the regime, the worst incidents tend to happen where there are large crowds: The chaos of proximity and the cover of collective anonymity loosen the enforcement of a shared moral code. Even then, there are always people who try to step in and help. (Logan was reportedly rescued by a group of women and soldiers).

One of the most striking aspects of the protests has been how many women participated, and said they felt welcome and safe.

Young female activists played a key role in planning the protests. Asmaa' Mahfouz, a 22-year-old activist with the 6 April group, put a message on YouTube before the protests started. The veiled, diminutive Mahfouz played on gender politics to encourage Egyptians to join the demonstration, saying: "I'll be distributing flyers and I'll be going out on the street [...] Everyone in this country who calls himself a man, should come out. Everyone who says girls who go to demonstrations will be abused, so they shouldn't go—he should act like a man and come out."

Not just activists but average Egyptian women came out day after day, facing tear gas, rubber pellets, beatings, and the risk of arrest.

Amany Eid, 34, works at a telecom company. She ventured out to her first protest on January 28. "We were four girls," she says. "We took one guy with us just in case it got nasty, in case we got harassed. We know Cairo—these things end up happening."

But, she says, "It was perfect. There was no harassment. Everyone was so emotionally and politically involved." Eid was separated from most of her friends and blinded by tear-gas. Nonetheless, she continued attending protests. "As the days progressed the number of women on the street was incredible," she says.

Nourhan Ahmad, a 17-year-old high school student in Alexandria, says when she joined her first protest on January 28 she was "afraid."

"I thought I would be the only girl," she says. Instead, she found many women alongside her. And, she says, "I never experienced this gender equality in Egypt before."

Egyptians insist that what happened to Logan is not representative of their revolution; some note that sexual violence unfortunately happens the world over. But some also say it’s a reminder that the road ahead is a long one, and that they need to focus on social as well as political change.

"Tahrir Square was a small representation of what we want Egypt to be, but not necessarily what it is," says Ghozlan. "Society still does have its problems and we can't ignore them and think they've gone away."

Ghozlan's group has long campaigned for a new law against sexual harassment. Today, they and other women’s rights groups are also calling for women to be better represented in the political transition, so their concerns aren’t left by the wayside.

In the last few weeks, says Ghozlan, “We set an example. We set a rule.”

What happened to the American correspondent, says Eid, is “unacceptable. If they catch these guys—I hate to say this but they will be beaten to death. They're disgracing us."

Ursula Lindsey is a Cairo-based reporter and writer.