The video is as shocking as it is graphic—a woman in an Islamic dress being pulled along the ground by Egypt’s military police, her black abaya flies up revealing a blue bra, meanwhile men in uniform stomp on her in broad daylight. Her body is motionless, her pale torso exposed to the blows from boots and truncheons.
Egypt’s military caretaker government has sought to portray itself as the custodian of the revolution, but the brutal treatment of a woman in this conservative society has galvanized Egypt’s stalled women’s movement, drawn ire from America and rejuvenated the image of embattled protesters after the generals issued a rare apology for the incident Tuesday night after five days of clashes killed 13 people.
After participating heavily in the uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak, women have been relegated to the sidelines in much of Egypt’s post-revolutionary power plays. But on Tuesday afternoon, thousands of women staged a march to Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the revolution. They came out in droves—young, old, veiled and unveiled, to chant against the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces [SCAF, the 20-member military board ruling Egypt], trying to reclaim space and dignity in Egypt’s political sphere. "They say they are here to protect us, but they are stripping us naked," the chants rang out.
Some dressed for the occasion. One woman had a white t-shirt on that read, “Your eyes are cheap,” with an outline of a bra. Others walked carrying local newspapers that reprinted the photograph of the beaten woman—someone else had blown the picture up to poster size. Dozens of men joined the demonstration and formed human shields around the marching group. They acted as a protective cordon and chanted, "Egyptian women are a red line."
Female activists handed out flyers depicting a hand emerging from a military uniform and stretching out to grope a frowning woman. The writing over the flyer read, "Liars, stop the violence."
Sexual harassment is not new to Egypt. A 2008 poll found that 83 percent of Egyptian women experience it on the country’s streets. Neither is the physical assault of liberal female protesters—who suffer from a stigma that they are loose because of their proximity to men and conflict. Watch in this video as an older man walks calmly from the scene of a longhaired, shortsleeved young female protester being bludgeoned earlier this weekend at around 0:55.
Women at the rally were hoping that watching a woman in Islamic garb being beaten would inspire a more intense conversation about the values of Egypt’s society as well as the intentions of the military. Signs around Tahrir since the incident claim Egyptians have lost their manhood and as such their national pride.
Maha Omran, a well-dressed 26-year-old engineer came to Tahrir for the first time this week to join the woman’s rally. She said she had participated in the initial protests in January, but was not among the regulars of the square. She received an invite by a friend on Facebook to attend. “Egyptian people have lost hope. They accepted the government and said we needed stability. I think this will change—this march shows the people in Tahrir are women from all levels of life. We are not slum dogs,” she said in reference to accusations about female protesters.
Social media sites have exploded with commentary—running the gamut between saying the woman deserved it and was obviously loose for not wearing a t-shirt under her abaya to those who said her blue bra should be a mark of pride and suggestions to change their twitter avatars to a Twibbon of a blue bra: “The bra is in solidarity with this woman, with every woman who's been harassed or beaten, and with every protester in Egypt.” Photo-shopped Egyptian flags with a blue bra in place of the usual black eagle circulated on Facebook to heated discussion over the patriotism or disrespect of the nation's flag.
Eman Galal, a 26-year-old English teacher is veiled and dressed in loose fitting clothes. She has come to Tahrir everyday since Friday’s clashes. “We need a strong reaction to answer what SCAF said and what the men at home are saying about the women attacked in Tahrir.”
Old stereotypes die hard, and Galal has heard men suggest women shouldn’t be in the square in the first place and that the beaten woman was asking for it by not closing her abaya more tightly around her. “Islam prohibits this,” Galal says referring to the incident. “If you’re really a Muslim, if you’re really a man, there should be a war over this [picture].”
The military’s treatment of female protesters has made waves in the past. In March, at least 17 detained women were subjected to “virginity tests” at the hands of military officials, causing an uproar in social media here. A general defended the practice, telling CNN, "The girls who were detained were not like your daughter or mine. These were girls who had camped out in tents with male protesters." These comments were swept under the rug and no apology was issued.
But this time, the incident has spilled over into the international arena. On Monday U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told an audience at Georgetown University in Washington: "Women protesters have been rounded up and subjected to horrific abuse. Journalists have been sexually assaulted. And now, women are being attacked, stripped, and beaten in the streets."
"This systematic degradation of Egyptian women dishonors the revolution, disgraces the state and its uniform and is not worthy of a great people," she added.
After days of dismissing criticism, the generals running the country may have finally gotten the message--no doubt helped by the international outcry. SCAF issued an unprecedented apology on Tuesday evening, after the march, expressing "deep regret to the great women of Egypt" and reaffirmed "its respect and total appreciation for the women of Egypt and their right to protest, effectively and positively participate in the political life on the road to the democratic transition." It promised it was taking measures to punish those responsible for violations. They also announced perpetrators of the “virginity tests” would be trialed.
Social media activists slammed SCAF’s statement as too little too late. But back in Tahrir, the march gave hope to the women to reclaim their space for themselves, regardless of statements. “This is the first time since the revolution that I feel we are really chanting with anger. This is injustice, naked injustice and we are angry about it,” Galal said. “That’s stronger than anything else. This march, this spirit, this is good.”