Why Lara Logan's Sexual Assault Is Demoralizing for Egyptian Women
It comes at a time when many women feel that street harassment is on the wane.
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.
Sarah A. Topol is a journalist based in Cairo. She has reported from Yemen, Libya, the United Arab Emirates, Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank. Her writing has appeared in the Atlantic, Foreign Policy, Newsweek, and the New Republic, among others.
Photograph of women protesting in Egypt by Pedro Ugarte/AFP/Getty Images.