When the Egyptian revolution erupted in Cairo's Tahrir Square, women stood shoulder to shoulder with men, demanding democracy, freedom and equality. Since then, events have taken a dismal turn for the women who wanted to become equal players in a modern Egypt.
The situation has become so worrisome that dozens of Egyptian women's groups and human rights organizations have issued a call on newly elected President Mohamed Morsi to take a stand and launch an investigation of violent sexual attacks against women and of a disturbing new trend, noticeable since the Muslim Brotherhood candidate took over the presidency, of harassment against women who do not wear the hijab, the Islamic head cover.
Egyptian women are no shrinking violets. Among them are some of the steeliest, sharpest advocates anywhere, working for secularism and equality. They are organizing a number of protests, and some plan to start spray-painting men who assault women. But activists face some tough adversaries.
Women have come under assault from all sides. Religious Egyptians suddenly feel comfortable demanding the imposition of their views upon those who do not share them, or upon those who simply wish to express them differently. It seems some deeply conservative Egyptians now feel safe trying to intimidate women into submission.
At the same time, women have finally started coming forward in large numbers and speaking out about the horrific sexual attacks that became a sickening routine at Tahrir Square.
Americans heard about the assault against journalist Lara Logan last year. And the rest of the world recently learned the story of the young British journalist Natasha Smith, who on June 26, while working in Tahrir, suddenly felt that, "Hundreds of men pulled my limbs apart and threw me around ... scratching and clenching my breasts and forcing their fingers inside me in every possible way." Egyptian feminists say Smith and Logan are not alone. Her experiences, they say, are part of a pattern of brutal assaults by large groups of Egyptian men.
Women are demanding action and they are organizing to stop the brutality.
The question now is how the government will respond, and how the larger Egyptian society will view what is taking place. Will they see it as an effort to put women in their place - where they should be - or as a stain on the entire country and an unqualified, inexcusable evil that must be stopped?
Women accuse political groups, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood, of pretending to support their goals in an opportunistic effort to gain their backing in public demonstrations and at the ballot box. Now, they say, the men of the Brotherhood, and the more radical Salafis, confront them in public, yelling their calls for them to dress differently, trying to create an atmosphere of intimidation and oppression. The men's calls are joined by those of some conservative Egyptian women.
Soon after taking office, Morsi vowed to name a woman as one of his vice presidents, as a sign that he was implementing his pledge to defend full women's rights.
But already his Islamist supporters are pushing back against the idea. And even if he does name a woman, no one knows whether she will have meaningful authority.
When the Muslim Brotherhood talks about women's rights it means something completely different from what others mean when they speak of equality. Egypt's women activists want full participation in every aspect of the country's life, from politics to business; full rights to live life as they choose, to dress as they prefer, and to decide what role to play in their home.
Many conservative Egyptians, including politically active Islamists, believe women's energies should be confined to their roles at home, as mothers and wives. There are a range of views beyond that. Some want to require hijab, the veil, others would like to see women banned from leaving the home without a male guardian.
Abuse of women is not limited to Islamists. In the early days of the revolution, women who were arrested for protesting against the previous government were subjected to "virginity tests" by the military. And the struggle for equality was already an uphill fight long before the revolution began. But the greatest threat to women's rights comes from the politically powerful ultra-conservative Islamists, now feeling more emboldened.
It's a battle that directly affects the daily lives of women, but will ultimately determine what kind of country Egypt will become.
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