CAIRO, (AP) – For a moment, it seemed Egypt wasn’t just throwing off its political shackles. Women long suffering from the scourge of sexual harassment reported Cairo’s Tahrir Square, command central of the uprising, had become a safe zone free of the groping and leering common in their country.
Now the reported attack on a senior U.S. television correspondent during the final night of the 18-day revolt has shown that the threat of violence against women in Egypt remains very real.
CBS has said its chief foreign correspondent, Lara Logan, went through a “brutal and sustained sexual assault and beating” by a frenzied mob in the square during Friday’s celebrations of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s ouster. The Associated Press does not name victims of sexual assault unless the victim agrees to be identified.
Logan was released from a U.S. hospital and was recovering Wednesday in her Washington-area home, as her story raised issues often left unaddressed in the Middle East.
On Wednesday, a White House official speaking on the condition of anonymity said President Barack Obama spoke with Logan on the telephone without disclosing details of the conversation.
An Egyptian security official said he was unaware of any investigation into the attack on Logan. He noted that police were pulled off the streets on Jan. 28, three days after the outbreak of the protests, and haven’t returned, with the exception of traffic police.
The American network has said Logan, her team and their security “were surrounded by a dangerous element amidst the celebration.” During the uprising, anti-government protesters in Tahrir Square had been largely peaceful, except when coming under attack by police or pro-Mubarak gangs trying to break up the large crowds. The pro-government forces also beat and harassed dozens of foreigners, including reporters and photographers.
Logan was ultimately saved by a group of Egyptian women and around 20 soldiers. After reconnecting with her crew, she returned to the United States on Saturday.
The night that Logan was assaulted, the nature of the crowd in Tahrir changed.
While only the most dedicated had turned up in the preceding 18 days — overcoming fear of arrest and bound by the shared goal of bringing down Mubarak — hundreds of thousands from all parts of Cairo flooded the downtown area to celebrate the president’s downfall.
In some areas, men formed human chains, cordoning off groups of women and children from pushing hordes. But it wasn’t enough protection, and women reported later that they were sexually harassed — stared at, shouted at, and groped — that night.
“All the men were very respectful during the revolution,” said Nawla Darwiche, an Egyptian feminist. “Sexual harassment didn’t occur during the revolt. It occurred during that night. I was personally harassed that night.”
During the uprising, women say they briefly experienced a “new Egypt,” with strict social customs casually cast aside — at least among the protesters.
Young women in jeans and tank tops smoked in public, standing next to bearded Islamists who didn’t bat an eye. Men and women mingled freely, unusual for a society where gender segregation in public is still common.
Women who said they had never slept away from home before were spending nights in tents pitched in the center of the square, as protesters tried to maintain control of the strategic location. The women said at the time they felt perfectly safe, even bringing their children.
Egyptian women’s rights campaigners now worry that the reprieve they experienced during the uprising was a fluke, and that their society will quickly revert to oppressive social mores that leave women vulnerable to sexual violence, with little recourse.
Women in Egypt — and in many areas of the Arab world — are still afraid to report sexual assault or harassment, fearing they and their families will be stigmatized, said Medine Ebeid of Egypt’s New Woman Foundation.
Only rarely do women come forward. In a widely publicized 2008 case, a woman dragged her assailant to a police station, and succeeded in sending him to jail for three years.
The killing of women by male relatives for perceived violations of a strict moral code are often either covered up by the families or the assailants, if prosecuted, face light sentences.
Sexual harassment remains widespread in Egypt, and even women covered up by veils and long robes in strict Islamic dress say they are not immune.
A 2008 survey by the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights found that 83 percent of Egyptian women and 98 percent of foreign women in Cairo said they had been harassed — while 62 percent of men admitted to harassing.
Harassment is often the flip side of conservative mores. Men who believe women should stay out of the public sphere tend to assume that those seen in the streets are fair game. Widespread unemployment leaves young men bored, frustrated and unable to marry.
Police witnessing harassment have a history of not interfering or even joining in, going after female political activists in particular, Darwiche said. In 2005, plainclothes agents trying to break up a rally by female anti-government protests tore at their clothes and pulled their hair.
A proposed law banning sexual harassment and outlining criminal punishment was never put to a vote to parliament. It’s unlikely to see any action during Egypt’s ongoing political turmoil, with parliament dissolved and elections not expected for several more months.
Activist Rasha Hassan said she and others hope to harness the spirit that made Tahrir safe for a while.
“We believe that when people think about a big thing, all of us collect (gather) for a main goal, our good morals return,” said Hassan, who helps run Harrasmap, a website that allows women to quickly report instances of harassment via text message or Twitter. Uploaded onto a digital map of Cairo, it shows hotspots and areas that might be dangerous for women to walk alone.
Asma Barlas, an expert on women in Islamic societies at Ithaca College, said change will likely be slow because traditional attitudes run deep.
“When societal images of women begin to change,” she said, “maybe things will get better.”