CAIRO, (AP) – A protest by hundreds of Egyptian women demanding equal rights and an end to sexual harassment turned violent Tuesday when crowds of men heckled and shoved the demonstrators, telling them to go home where they belong.
The women — some in headscarves and flowing robes, others in jeans — had marched to Cairo’s central Tahrir Square to celebrate International Women’s Day. But crowds of men soon outnumbered them and chased them out.
“They said that our role was to stay home and raise presidents, not to run for president,” said Farida Helmy, a 24-year old journalist.
Sexual harassment remains widespread in Egypt, where women often are afraid to report sexual assault or harassment for fear they and their families will be stigmatized. 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.
Tahrir Square was the epicenter of the protests that toppled President Hosni Mubarak last month after nearly 30 years in power. Women in Egypt had reported that Tahrir had been free of the groping and leering endemic in the country, but on Feb. 11, CBS correspondent Lara Logan was sexually assaulted and beaten on the final night of the 18-day revolt. The Associated Press does not name victims of sexual assault unless they agree to be identified.
At Tuesday’s march, men scolded protesters and said their concerns were not urgent in the aftermath of the uprising. When the women argued back, some were verbally abused or groped. Others were beaten and had to be ripped away from the groups of men.
Mostafa Hussein, 30, said many protesters had to flee the area and hide in a park nearby.
“They were running for their lives and the army had to fire a shot in the air to break up the mob chasing them,” Hussein said.
Passant Rabie, 23, said she was surprised that the women were abused after the role they played in the uprising. Women were central to the protests, leading chants, spending cold nights in the square and even fighting during the battle of Black Wednesday, when pro-government henchmen attacked the protesters.
“I thought we were going to be celebrated as women of the revolution because we were present during the days of Tahrir,” Rabie said. “Unless women are included now, we are going to be oppressed.”
On the occasion of the International Women’s Day, U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Rodham Clinton, said on Tuesday that the transitions from autocracy in Egypt and Tunisia would be incomplete as long as half of society remained blocked from participating in governance.
“The United States will stand firmly for the proposition that women must be included in whatever process goes forward,” she said.