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.
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.
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.
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.
Photo by Patrick Baz/AFP/Getty Images.