After a year and a half or so characterized by political uprising, government overthrow, and a wobbly transition from military-run government to democracy, one would hope that conditions were improving for Egypt's women, and for its citizenry as a whole. Short answer: they're not. In fact, left to their own devices, many men in Egypt have channeled their democratic zeal into sexually assaulting and harassing women who dare appear in public. And it's going from bad to worse.
This weekend, British journalist Natasha Smith was in Tahrir Square covering the Egyptian reaction to the announcement of the election of Mohammad Morsi as the country's first democratically elected leader. Smith stepped out with two male acquaintances for protection, but was snatched away from her companions by a mob of what she describes as "hundreds" of men, who proceeded to steal her camera and knapsack, tear her clothes off, and grab her breasts and genitals. In a blog post, she wrote that she felt like she was "tossed around like fresh meat among starving lions." After her ordeal went on for several minutes and went ignored by countless onlookers, group of men and women eventually came to her aid, saying that the behavior of the men wasn't "what Egypt is" and that the mob probably did it because they thought Smith was a spy.
Oh, okay. Forgot about that sexual assault loophole that says it's totally morally cool if you do it to spies.
Smith believes that she was targeted because she's a "blonde Western girl," but it would be incredibly myopic to imply that blonde Western girls are the only victims of Egyptian sexual violence. In fact, Egyptian women are targeted and sexually harassed or assaulted every day, and unlike Smith, they can't get on a plane and go home if they feel overwhelmed or unsafe. They're by and large stuck.
Egyptian journalist and activist Mona Eltahawy was herself the target of a similar attack late last year, but her attackers weren't men on the street; they were police officers. On June 8, a group of Egyptian women protesting sexual harassment in Tahrir Square were themselves sexually assaulted by a large mob of men, prompting a day of protest and awareness-raising that occurred not on the streets, but on the internet. Some women believe that the harassment and assault is part of a coordinated effort to keep women out of politics and in the home, to keep them afraid, indoors, and quiet.
So will it get better for women in Egypt? Eltahawy and her fellow activists are working tirelessly to raise awareness and end victimization, but with newly elected Islamist President Morsi in office, they may have to battle against a government that believes in enforcing largely traditional roles and limiting women's choices. A New York Times profile of Egypt's new First Lady Naglaa Ali Mahmoud details how she adheres to strict conservative rules for how women must act and dress and how she once ran Muslim Brotherhood workshops for women that instructed ladies that "Men are designed to lead and women are designed to follow." Some elite Egyptians are concerned that this reflects a "provincialism" that isn't going to do Egypt's burgeoning international image as a country that treats its women as either exalted wives or disposable whores any favors.
But not all signs are bad. Morsi has indicated that he intends to appoint at least one woman to his inner circle of advisors. And even though mobs of men may try their hardest, prominent activists like Eltahawy won't be silenced.