Is the harassment of women at Tahrir a deliberate tactic?
Protests in Egypt have attracted worldwide attention again this week as thousands across the country turn out to call for the ruling military council to step down from power.
But their image has been marred by a rise in violence against women, a development that differs from the safer-than-usual atmosphere felt during the protests in January and February, according to women activists.
Not only have many women said that they have been sexually harassed during the protests, but journalists Mona Eltahawy and Caroline Sinz reported they were brutally attacked near the square (see WVoN story).
The disturbing events prompted Reporters Without Borders to urge editors not to send female journalists to the square, which they later amended (see WVoN story) to say that it is more dangerous for a woman than a man to cover the demonstrations.
The number of reports of harassment coming from women tweeting in the square led to some disagreement over who was responsible.
Some blamed the “festival-like” atmosphere and others blamed “mukhabarat” (intelligence officers) or “baltageya” (thugs) entering the square.
Twitter user @__safi__ wrote: “Right, so clearly the game now is: Make #Tahrir appear “festive”, harass the girls like never before & spread rumors like wildfire. Classy.”
But activist @Sarahngb wrote: “Sad that I didn’t enjoy being in #Tahrir today or at least felt safe. I always liked being alone for a while in the square.”
The disagreement and confusion over who is responsible for the harassment and attacks is, however, not surprising, given the issue of street harassment here and probably boils down to the fact that both parties are responsible.
Security forces are known to harass and assault female protesters and journalists – remember the “virgnity tests” conducted by military police that protesters reported in March.
But many regular Egyptian women report harassment on a daily basis, including incidents of assault and violence on the streets.
The assaults on the journalists confirm this. Ms Eltahawy’s attackers were from Egypt’s Central Security Forces, while Ms Sinz’s were a large group of teenage boys and men.
And I have personal experience of being harassed in Egypt.
From September to March, I was touched inappropriately or groped six times in public.
I only managed to stop a seventh attack when I started hitting the police officer in the face as he reached for the area between my legs.
But even though those particular incidents were not pre-planned, there could be some truth to rumors of a plan to frighten female protesters from attending the demonstrations.
Last night, Egyptian state TV focused its cameras on one woman in the crowd who was being attacked, with men pulling at her arms and clothes.
Given its reputation for absurd claims – one of which involved revolutionary protesters going to Tahrir just to get free meals from Kentucky Fried Chicken - its sudden interest in the harassment of women is questionable.
Either way, it will be important in the coming days to watch whether the proliferation of these reports affect women’s participation in Egypt’s protests.