Thugs attacked women demonstrating against sexual harrasment in Cairo’s Tahrir Square on Friday. They broke through a chain of protective men and cornered women against rails around the square, groping them. The women ran to nearby buildings.
Egypt, like many Mediterranean societies, emphasizes female chastity as a source of the honor for males in the family. Thus, most brothers are seriously shamed by a sister who sleeps around. This shame/honor dynamic underpins a nervousness about women playing a role in public, since being public rather than private, it is feared by many conservatives, increases opportunities for sexual activity. Women were about a fifth of the protesters in Tahrir Square during the 18-day revolution in 2011, but their presence was controversial. The military accused them of sleeping with boys at the square in tents, and gave them virginity tests when it arrested them. The protesters are fictive brothers and sisters united against an abusive father figure. Counter-revolutionaries use female honor as a wedge to turn brothers on sisters, in hopes of dividing and ruling.
So who attacked the women on Friday? Of course we don’t know. Some protesters suspect that elements in the military or remnants of the old regime put the thugs up to it, as a way of discouraging young people from coming to the square. On Tuesday and again on Friday, thousands had protested there against the presidential candidacy of Gen. Ahmad Shafiq, on the grounds that he is too close to the deposed dictator Hosni Mubarak. Friday could be seen as revenge for Tuesday, if the thugs were Shafiq supporters.
Pro-Shafiq ruffians have broken up news conferences and attacked a women’s conference a couple of weeks ago when I was in Cairo. That is, some activists suspect that the women were assaulted not because they are women but because they are revolutionaries continuing to threaten the prerogatives of the Mubarak elite. If women, then Coptic Christians, then other groups can be peeled off from the youth revolutionaries, they fear, the movement could be much weakened.