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.

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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.

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"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.