At first Samira Ibrahim was afraid to tell her father that Egyptian soldiers had detained her in Tahrir Square in Cairo, stripped off her clothes and watched as she was forcibly subjected to a “virginity test,” but when her father, a religious conservative, saw electric prod marks on her body, they revived memories of his own detention and torture under former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak’s government.
“History is repeating itself,” he told her, and together they vowed to file a court case against the military rulers, to claim “my rights,” as Ibrahim later recalled.
That case proved successful and for the first time last month a court challenged the authority of the military council, and banned such tests.
However, nearly a year after Mubarak’s ouster, Ibrahim’s story in many ways illustrates the paradoxical position of women in the new Egypt. Emboldened by the revolution to claim a new voice in public life, many are finding that they are still dependent on the protection of men and that their greatest power is not as direct actors, but as symbols of the military government’s repression.
It is not a place Egyptian women had hoped they would be in the heady days of the revolution, when they played an active role, side by side with men, to bring down a dictator.
“Changing the patriarchal culture is not so easy,” said Mozn Hassan, 32, executive director of a six-year-old group, Nazra for Feminist Studies.
Female demonstrators have suffered sexual assaults at the hands of Egyptian soldiers protected by military courts. Human rights groups say they have documented the cases of at least 100 women who were sexually assaulted by soldiers during the time of military rule — including Ibrahim’s experience in March and the anonymous woman recorded on video last month as she was beaten and stripped, exposing a blue bra, by soldiers clearing Tahrir Square after fresh protests. The vast majority of cases have come during the three-month crackdown on demonstrations that has taken more than 80 lives so far.
Even when women have pushed back, as they did late last month in a historic march by thousands through downtown Cairo — many carrying pictures of the “blue bra girl” — they have done so only with the protection and approval of men. The marchers were encircled by men and at times their male guardians seemed to direct the crowd or lead its chants — many of the chants led by women seemed to call for more “gallantry” from Egyptian men.
As representatives of the popular opposition, many of these women risk becoming turned into mascots of the male-dominated uprising, said Hassan, one of several Egyptian feminists who said they were thrilled by the size of the march — but winced at its dependence on men.
“If you are calling for men to protect you, that is bad, because then they define you and they stick to the traditional roles,” said Hassan, who noted that even among feminist groups, there were few all-women’s organizations in Egypt and that of the 13 founders of her organization, six were men.
At the same time, the revolution has opened the door for the ascendance of conservative Islamist parties, including religious extremists who want to roll back some of the rights women do have. The mainstream Muslim Brotherhood is poised to win nearly half of the seats in parliament when voting is completed this week, while the more extreme Salafis are on track to win more than 20 percent.