The gradually worsening state of civil society in Egypt accelerated this week in response to the military’s vicious attack on a female protester in Tahrir Square. The events surrounding the beating are complex (the New York Times has a more detailed account), but I’ll summarize the basics here. For about five days, protestors have been actively calling for an end to the military rule that has dominated Egypt since the ouster of former President Hosni Mubarak earlier this year. The regime’s response has become increasingly violent, and, during the weekend, soldiers were photographed and videotaped stripping and beating women in the streets. One video in particular—which shows a young, unarmed woman being kicked and stomped after having her abaya forcibly removed to expose a plain blue bra—has quickly spread around the Internet, enraging activists both in Egypt and abroad. In an unexpected show of solidarity for a largely conservative country, thousands of Egyptian women flooded the streets of Cairo on Tuesday evening in protest.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has strongly condemned the crackdown, noting that it “disgraces the [Egyptian] state and its uniform.” The response from the Egyptian government has ranged from defensive to dismissive to antagonistic, with retired general Abdel Moneim Kato going so far as to argue that observers shouldn’t be worried “about a vagrant who should be burnt in Hitler’s incinerators.”
But the cruelty and misogyny doesn’t stop there. The NYT reporters spoke to a number of men who had seen the “blue bra video,” and their responses are as telling as they are shocking.
Some men who had seen the images questioned why the woman had been in the square, suggesting that her husband or father should have kept her at home. Other men have argued that she must have wanted the exposure because she wore fancy lingerie, or they have said she should have worn more clothes under her abaya.
While it’s always dangerous to analyze the psychology of a different culture, I think it is safe to say that in this case, a kind of social contract has been irreparably broken. Based on the statements reported in the Times and in other media accounts, the women of all ages and political/religious orientations who took to the streets yesterday felt that the violation against this poor woman was a violation against them all. A repressive, virulently patriarchical society like the one the Egyptian military apparently wishes to foment in its country can only function with the tacit (whether coerced or freely given) consent of the women it oppresses. But when those same men who demand chastity, modesty, and all the rest prove themselves to be hypocrites by violently demeaning women in the streets, the silence is bound to be broken.