Nazly Hussein doesn’t look anything like Lara Logan, the CBS reporter who was attacked by a group of men on the night Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak stepped down. The 27-year-old education psychologist has long brown hair and almond eyes, and she doesn’t stand out in a crowd like Logan did. But like most women in Egypt, she, too, has been sexually harassed on Cairo’s streets.
What happened to Logan is every woman’s nightmare, but it’s also atypical. Most cases of sexual assault in Egypt are not as gruesome as Logan’s experience, they are instead much like what happens to Hussein—a near constant stream of verbal harassment and the odd groping. A 2008 study found 83 percent of Egyptian women said they had been sexually harassed, while 62 percent of men admitted to harassing women; 53 percent of men blamed women for “bringing it on” themselves. But there’s one thing the numbers don’t spell out: the psychological impact of frequent minor assaults—too trivial to report on their own—is debilitating.
But according to Hussein and from what I observed, Midan Tahrir during the 18-day Tahrir encampment was different. Logan’s assault is even more demoralizing for Egyptian women because it comes at a time when they truly believe things are changing for the better.
Harassment was at an all-time low during the protests. Many told me at the time that was because the square felt like a “family,” withstanding attacks, first from the police, and then from regime-sponsored thugs. It all started on Jan. 25, the first day Egyptians took to the streets demanding their rights. “On Tuesday, I went out on the streets really considerate of what I was going to wear, really considerate,” Hussein remembers.
All day as demonstrators attempted to march into Tahrir, people were apologizing when they bumped into her, something Hussein marveled at because “It’s only normal for people to bump into you at a demonstration.” And these people didn’t just apologize. “It was, ‘I’m sorry, excuse me,’ ” Hussein explained. “I’m thinking: ‘Excuse me’? Where was that yesterday? And the year before? And the year before?”
After hours of fighting riot police barricades, she finally made it off side streets and into Cairo’s central square, which would become the epicenter of Egypt’s protests. “At that point, for the first time people would come up and talk to me like a human being and not like a woman; it was great!” Hussein gushed.
Other women I spoke with inside Tahrir at the time remarked on the same thing. Many hope their role in the revolt that removed Mubarak’s 30-year regime has changed attitudes toward their gender.
Mariam, who didn’t want her last name to be used, is sure of it. The 21-year-old high-school teacher is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, the conservative Islamist group that may see legality for the first time since 1954 after Mubarak’s toppling.
Women in the Brotherhood are not equal yet, Mariam said. But her peers know that “There were a lot of women there; without them we couldn’t show this complete view—that people demonstrating against the government were not only men or only Muslim Brothers, or only activists. No, it was all of Egypt.”
There’s never a safer place to be as a woman in Egypt than with members of the Brotherhood. Their male supporters frequently form human chains around groups of women to protect them from being groped. They did it to me when I was covering a demonstration for one of their parliamentary candidates in November 2010. They did it again on Tahrir Square; men linked hands to cordon off Brotherhood women. But after a while, they let go, in a sign of how much trust they had in their fellow protesters.
Gigi Ibrahim, a recent Egyptian-American graduate from the American University in Cairo, agrees things are changing in Egypt. Unlike Hussein and Mariam, Ibrahim was politically active before Tahrir. But being an activist at Egyptian protests over the years came with risks. Aside from the violent tactics of riot police wielding batons, there were targeted gender comments about a demonstrating woman’s reputation, her family, and her propriety.
When a photograph of Ibrahim at a demonstration last year landed in a local newspaper, the Web site was flooded with comments. She remembers one of them well—it was from a police cadet. “He commented and said something to the extent of, ‘look at that girl she just goes to the protests to get sexually harassed’ and obviously, I was attacked based on gender and not based on why I was there. Obviously, he was an idiot,” she says. Ibrahim got him blocked from the Web site, she tells me, shaking her head. But other commenters weighed in, defending her online.
Ibrahim hopes that kind of behavior will be the norm now. “Women were pivotal and had as important of a role just like the men in this whole revolution. They led chants; they told people go to that side or that side during the fighting.”
Perhaps more important than if Tahrir changed men’s minds on harassment, it has obviously changed women’s concept of themselves. The protests empowered a generation of women who saw they could be taken seriously on a political stage that had previously been dominated by men. All of the women I speak to say they will fight harder for their political and gender rights. None of them are staying out of politics anymore.
To be sure, Logan stood out in the crowds, and foreign women experience even more advances than Egyptian women do. In the same study that I mentioned above, 98 percent of foreign women visiting Egypt reported being harassed. But it’s still too early to tell whether or not the changes Egyptian women heralded in the square apply to foreigners as well.
Hussein has only been verbally harassed once since the protests, and instead of dealing with the guy by herself, she says a crowd formed in her defense, yelling insults and shaming the young man who catcalled her. She is working with her friends to start a social awareness campaign to bring the spirit and values of Tahrir to the masses that were not there. As for the continued episodes of harassment, Hussein thinks people who had not been part of the uprising are perpetuating it. Unfortunately, I tell Hussein, as I walked to meet her, I got catcalled several times. She is shocked. Although, Egyptian women hope the situation is improving, it remains to be seen if that change is universal.