Egypt’s Women Find Power Still Hinges on Men

January 10, 2012

CAIRO — At first Samira Ibrahim was afraid to tell her father that Egyptian soldiers had detained her in Tahrir Square in Cairo, stripped off her clothes, and watched as she was forcibly subjected to a “virginity test.”

But when her father, a religious conservative, saw electric prod marks on her body, they revived memories of his own detention and torture under President Hosni Mubarak’s government. “History is repeating itself,” he told her, and together they vowed to file a court case against the military rulers, to claim “my rights,” as Ms. Ibrahim later recalled.

That case has proved successful so far. For the first time last month, an administrative court challenged the authority of the military council and banned such “tests.” Ms. Ibrahim will ask a military court on Sunday to hold the officers accountable.

But nearly a year after Mr. Mubarak’s ouster, Ms. Ibrahim’s story in many ways illustrates the paradoxical position of women in the new Egypt. Emboldened by the revolution to claim a new voice in public life, many are finding that they are still dependent on the protection of men, and that their greatest power is not as direct actors but as symbols of the military government’s repression. It is not a place where Egyptian feminists had hoped women would be, back in the heady days of the revolution, when they played an active role, side by side with men, to bring down a dictator.

“Changing the patriarchal culture is not so easy,” said Mozn Hassan, 32, executive director of the seven-year-old group Nazra for Feminist Studies.

Female demonstrators have suffered sexual assaults at the hands of Egyptian soldiers protected by military courts. Human rights groups say they have documented the cases of at least 100 women who were sexually assaulted by soldiers or the security police during the time of military rule — including Ms. Ibrahim’s experience in March and the anonymous woman recorded on video last month as she was beaten and stripped, exposing a blue bra, by soldiers clearing Tahrir Square after fresh protests. The vast majority of cases have come during the three-month crackdown on demonstrations that has taken more than 80 lives since the beginning of October.

Even when women have pushed back, as they did late last month in a historic march by thousands through downtown Cairo — many carrying pictures of the “blue bra girl” — they have done so only with the protection of men. Men encircled the marchers and at times those male guardians seemed to direct the crowd or lead its chants; many chants led by women called for more “gallantry” from Egyptian men.

Famous mainly as silent victims, women like the “blue bra girl” risk becoming mascots of the male-dominated uprising, said Ms. Hassan, one of several Egyptian feminists who said they were thrilled by the size of the march — but winced at its dependence on men.

“If you are calling for men to protect you, that is bad, because then they define you and they stick to the traditional roles,” Ms. Hassan said. (Even among feminist groups, there were few all-women organizations in Egypt, and of the 13 founders of Ms. Hassan’s organization, 6 were men.)

At the same time, the revolution has opened the door for the ascendance of conservative Islamist parties, including religious extremists who want to roll back some of the rights women do have. The mainstream Muslim Brotherhood is poised to win nearly half of the seats in Parliament, when voting is completed this week, while the more extreme Salafis are on track to win more than 20 percent.

While Brotherhood leaders talk of encouraging traditional roles but respecting women’s career choices, many Salafis oppose allowing women to play leadership roles and favor regulating issues like women’s dress to impose Islamic standards of modesty. “We have major concerns because what they are proposing is very oppressive,” said Ghada Shabandar, a veteran human rights activist.

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