Egypt's protests were a safe space for women—until things turned violent.

Notes from different corners of the world.
Feb. 2 2011 3:06 PM

Thousands of Men and No Groping!

Egypt's protests were a safe space for women. Until things turned violent.

Read more of Slate's coverage of the  Egyptian protests.

Egyptian protests. Click image to expand.
A Mubarak supporter shouts slogans during a demonstration in Cairo's Muhandisin district

This morning, the woman checking bags and body-searching demonstrators entering Cairo's central square had quite a job on her hands. As demonstrations in Egypt's capital entered their second week, she had volunteered to keep the rallying point safe. I'd encountered her at the same place yesterday, but today's search was a lot more thorough.

"We heard people would be bringing knives and weapons to the square today. Bad people would try to stop us," she explained, as she frisked women in front of a metal barricade. "They asked us to come. All of us are volunteers," she said, though she declined to tell me her name.

One woman waiting to enter puts up a fight, and the brisk, stout woman, who is a headmistress by profession, lays down the law: "I am here to protect you. The military wants us to protect you—they don't have women, so we are here for you."

Unfortunately, at the end of a long day in Cairo, the headmistress's body-search seems to have been for naught. The place where she stood a few hours earlier is in flames as I type this. Last night, President Hosni Mubarak spoke to the nation and said he would finish out his term but would not run in presidential elections scheduled for September. Protesters had been demanding his immediate resignation.

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Today, pro-Mubarak rallies filled the city. And the conflict that followed marked a sharp departure from the peaceful protests of the days before. As I write, Mubarak supporters and anti-regime demonstrators are clashing in the streets below—throwing Molotov cocktails and rocks.

But whichever camp they find themselves in, this unprecedented moment in Egypt's history has also been a momentous time for Egyptian women, who I saw in droves at both the anti- and pro-Mubarak protests.

Over the last week, women joined men in the square and on the streets, calling for an end to the Mubarak regime. They brought their children—including young girls. Some even camped out in the cold.

Soheir Sadi was one of them. This morning, she sat in the square with her 14-year-old daughter. They had come every day since the protests started on Jan. 25. "I came seeking my rights, like any Egyptian. I rent my apartment, I don't own it, and I can't afford food. What kind of life is that? And for my children?" she asks. "I wasn't afraid for my daughter, because everyone is family in the square. We are all real men standing up for ourselves, even the girls. And now they have learned that they can protect themselves like men."

Egypt has a sexual harassment problem. In a 2008 study, 86 percent of women said they had been harassed on Egypt's streets—any woman walking through a crowd of men in Egypt braces to get groped. But in the square, crammed in shoulder-to-shoulder, men apologized if they so much as bumped into you. After wandering around the protests for days, it suddenly dawned on me that I hadn't been groped, a constant annoyance when I'm faced with large crowds in Cairo. When I pointed this out to other women in the square, we all took a moment to reflect. "I hadn't even thought of that," one woman in Tahrir told me. "But it's because we're all so focused on one goal, we're a family here."

Today's pro-Mubarak rallies were also attended by women, who screamed slogans like, "Don't leave, Mubarak." Many came from the poorer neighborhoods, prompting my taxi driver to suggest that many of them had been paid to join the crowd. But affluent women attended, as well. One of whom told me, "This isn't yes to Mubarak; it's yes to stability and no to the Muslim Brotherhood." Many secular liberal elites in Egypt worry that the Brotherhood, officially banned but still the strongest organized opposition to Mubarak, will come to power if he leaves.

Then there were the women who switched sides. Farah Mohammed had been in Tahrir Square for the last few days, demanding that Mubarak resign. Today, she came instead to show her support for the only president she has ever known. "We want to give him a chance," the 20-year-old with neon pink nails told me. "If he left now, there would be a gap. The economy would fail. We want to work, to go out, and to live like we used to." Many Egyptians have expressed concern about the economic woes that have come to the fore as the city gradually closed down over the last week as protests raged. Many activists worried that Mubarak's Tuesday night address had sinister connotations, signaling an attempt to pit citizens against one another.

But women like Farah stayed on the streets this afternoon as two rallies clashed on the entry channels into Tahrir Square. Many people inside Tahrir were wounded and were taken to a nearby mosque-turned-makeshift-hospital for treatment—where women also took up positions.

The scene was frantic, as bleeding men were dragged through the streets for treatment. "We've seen cuts, wood splinters from sticks, bleeding, very much bleeding from the head," one woman doctor called to me over the din. "I treated one woman," she says, "a brick hit her on the head." She was about to say more, but someone brought in a man with blood streaming down his face.

Back in the square, as we hear shouted reports that pro-Mubarak protesters armed with sticks are approaching, Samia, a young woman no older than 20, calmly smokes a cigarette. We can't see the clashes from where we are sitting. The last I checked, they were concentrated in one part of the square, but rumor has it they're heading our way. Samia has spent four nights sleeping in the square, and though she seems alert, she doesn't appear visibly shaken.

"I'm not leaving," Samia tells me. "I'd leave if I thought this was what the people really wanted. But they don't represent Egyptians. These are paid people—thugs. We are the majority."

As I try to find an exit point from the square, as the shouts of pro-Mubarak mobs continue to sound, Samia takes my arm and leads me to the nearest back alley. Then, she squeezes my arm, tells me to be safe, and returns to the center of the square.

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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.

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