The Egyptian Women Standing Up for Human Rights

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Faced with a spike in sexual violence against female protesters, Egyptian women are overcoming stigma and recounting painful testimonies to force silent authorities and a reticent society to confront 'sexual terrorism' (Photo Credit: Mahmud Khaled/AFP/Getty Images).

Faced with a spike in sexual violence against female protesters, Egyptian women are overcoming stigma and recounting painful testimonies to force silent authorities and a reticent society to confront ‘sexual terrorism’ (Photo Credit: Mahmud Khaled/AFP/Getty Images).

The hopes and aspirations of Egypt’s 2011 uprising may rest in the ability of women to fight back against official discrimination and gender-based violence in the public arena.

Today, women play a leading role in the struggle for human rights in Egypt, but they’re paying a price for it through laws that marginalize them, increasing number of sexual assaults of women protesters and official pronouncements from authorities that women are to blame for the attacks on them.

A new Amnesty International campaign intends to reverse the loss of rights and to reclaim the promises of the Tahrir uprising by demanding that Egyptian authorities, both civilian and military, condemn sexual violence, fulfill their obligations to ensure women have the full spectrum of human rights and to press for accountability for past abuses.

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Sexual Attacks on Women in Egypt

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A woman protester waves the victory sign during clashes with military police near Tahrir Square.

A woman protester waves the victory sign during clashes with military police near Tahrir Square.

By Diana Eltahawy, Amnesty International’s Egypt researcher

Almost every girl and woman – regardless of age, social status or choice of attire – who has walked the streets or taken public transport in Cairo, has experienced some form of verbal or physical sexual harassment.

This isn’t new. For years, Egyptian women’s rights activists and others have called on the authorities to recognize the seriousness of the problem.

There needs to be a fundamental shift in institutionalized attitudes that discriminate against women.

The Egyptian authorities must introduce legal reforms, prosecute perpetrators and address root causes, because the plight of women who have experienced sexual violence has been ignored.

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Five Reasons for Engagement Following the Egyptian Uprising

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Egyptians demonstrate outside of the Presidential Palace in May, 2012.  Copyright Amnesty International.

Egyptians demonstrate outside of the Presidential Palace in May, 2012. Copyright Amnesty International.

On the second anniversary of the Egyptian Jan. 25 uprising, there’s a strong sense that the hopes of Tahrir Square have been tarnished.

There’s some reason for this: There have been too many broken promises.  Women, who were so essential to the uprising, were quickly marginalized in the months after it. Copts and other minority groups fear for their future. A new civilian government pushed through a constitution that may further minimize the role of women and lead to past human rights abuses being repeated. And perhaps most important, no institution seems capable of holding former Mubarak officials, security forces and the military accountable for decades of human rights abuses. The spirit of impunity lives on.

Yet, that’s only one side of the situation. There is in fact reason not to lose faith in Egypt’s future. This is not a promise that the path toward justice in Egypt is smooth, nor is it a prediction. But here are five reasons why we must remain engaged:

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Ending 'Virginity Tests' and the Future of Women's Rights in Egypt

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After an international campaign and a meeting with Amnesty International Secretary General Salil Shetty, one of Egypt’s top military rulers announced Monday that the army will no longer carry out forced ‘virginity tests’ against detained women.

Although this is a positive development, Maj. Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s comments must translate into unequivocal instructions to army staff that women are never forced to undergo this treatment again in Egypt.

When army officers violently cleared Tahrir Square on March 9, 17 women were detained, beaten, prodded with electric shock batons, subjected to strip searches, forced to submit to ‘virginity tests’ and threatened with prostitution charges.

The women were brought before a military court two days later and released on March 13. Several received one-year suspended sentences for charges including disorderly conduct, destroying property, obstructing traffic and possession of weapons.

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Speak Out in Solidarity with Egyptian Women!

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From the moment protests began in Egypt on January 25, women have been on the frontlines, demanding respect for the human rights of all Egyptians.

On Tuesday, in honor of International Women’s Day, women assembled in Tahrir Square to claim their human rights, the Washington Post reported. However, the demonstration was marred by an angry mob of men who beat and sexually assaulted the female marchers, insisting that a woman could never be president and objecting to women’s demands to have a role in drafting a new constitution.

Image: © Ramy Raoof

The Washington Post reported, “Everyone was chased. Some were beaten. They were touching us everywhere,’ said Dina Abou Elsoud, organizer of the ambitiously named Million Woman March.”

In contrast to the status of women in Ancient Egypt, a period in Egyptian history which gave rise to powerful female leaders such as Queen Hatshepsut and Queen Cleopatra, women in Egypt today are underrepresented and sexually harassed. The gender-based violence seen in Tahrir square on Tuesday points to the long and difficult struggle that still lies ahead for women in Egypt to fully enjoy their rights.

According to a survey conducted by the Egyptian Center for Women’s rights, 98 percent of foreign women and 83 percent of Egyptian women have been sexually harassed in Egypt. In addition, “20,000 women or girls [are] raped every year,” as cited in an article by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). SEE THE REST OF THIS POST