Middle East

Will Egypt's post-Morsi era be safer for women?

Male volunteers separate women from men in Tahrir Square on 5 July 2013
Image caption Volunteers have formed lines to help protect women during the protests

Sex attacks in Cairo's Tahrir Square have become a grim feature of the site synonymous with protests, but could the political changes make a difference to the treatment of women?

A roped off section of staircase creates a safe passage for women as they exit the metro in Cairo's Tahrir Square during protests.

But it is not manned by transport security, or the police. It is male volunteers, who cordon off a pathway so that women can get into the square without being pressed upon by the men already outside.

These volunteers are protecting women against minor incidents of sexual harassment: touching and groping. But brutal attacks continue to take place.

Hassan Nassar, a 22-year-old youth activist, spent much of last week's protests working to protect women in Tahrir Square. He spent some time bringing women out of the metro, and other times patrolling the area.

Women who have been victims of assault, and witnesses too, report a similar sequence of events. They say a group of men isolates the woman, then other men on the outside tell onlookers they are trying to help someone in distress.

"We go into the middle of crowds to get the girls out and take them to a car to get away," Mr Nassar says. "I do it because this doesn't belong in our society. You can imagine it's your sister or your mum and you have to help."

Sexual assaults during protests in Tahrir Square, in particular since the mass protests against a power-grabbing constitutional declaration in November 2012, have become so frequent that activist groups have formed to take action against them.

One of the groups is Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment and Assault.

Their volunteers alone helped more than 150 women following incidents of physical sexual harassment, including three rapes, between 30 June and 3 July 2013.

Maryam Kirollos, a member of Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment and Assault, blamed the Morsi government's inaction for the continual occurrence of these attacks. She told the BBC that people who went to Tahrir Square and did nothing to help were also at fault.

'Problem with society'

Hanya Moheeb, a freelance journalist, was one of 19 women sexually attacked by mobs in Tahrir Square on 25 January 2013, the second anniversary of the revolution that toppled former President Hosni Mubarak.

She believes the issue of violence against women became worse under the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood, to which the ousted President Mohammed Morsi belongs, because they view women as "tools of sex".

"This became the official stance of institutions," she says.

But following the military's announcement to remove President Morsi from office, she is feeling optimistic. "If things go fine for the opposition, I think it will be a big step for support of women's rights."

The Muslim Brotherhood, however, says the issue of violence against women is not of its doing.

"This culture does not respect women," says Hamza Zoba, a spokesperson for the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party.

"Islamic culture respects women. This issue is not related to the government but to culture. It's up to society. NGOs should be protecting women."

And it is not only the group's members who believe that. Some of their opponents do too.

"Harassment has nothing to do with the Brotherhood because it's always been around. It's a problem with society and a lack of security," Hassan Nassar says.

But throughout the last 12 months of President Morsi's rule, the Brotherhood has come under fire for its women's rights policy.

The group condemned a UN declaration calling for an end to violence against women, saying the declaration would lead to the "complete disintegration of society".

And women's rights groups reject the now suspended constitution, drawn up by a committee with a large Brotherhood contingent, saying it does not guarantee equality. Women are only mentioned in the context of the family.

Omneya Talaat, a writer and women's rights activist, said she was shocked by the constitution that was finalised in December 2012.

"We would have been doomed," she says. "The Brotherhood wanted to go back 100 years in women's rights, it was a catastrophe."

But now any future for the Muslim Brotherhood's rule is looking increasingly precarious, she is more hopeful.

"I can't say I'm optimistic or pessimistic, but I'm very sure that respect for women's rights will happen," she says. "[Without the Brotherhood] the law will be on women's side."

'Virginity tests'

But there are other factors at play. Sexual assaults are not a new phenomenon in Egypt and sexual harassment is commonplace.

"Almost every woman in Egypt has experienced it, no matter their age," says Lamia, 24, who lives in a village east of Cairo.

Lamia believes politics won't change that.

"Our leaders are focused on political issues," she says. "To develop we need education and we have to be good people."

Egypt is a strongly patriarchal society and many also attribute the lack of action on violence against women to this.

Marina Alfred Mishreki, 22, used to work night shifts in a call centre.

"I used to come back at 5am and the neighbours asked a lot of questions," she says. "They might have thought I was a prostitute. There were sometimes men who accused me of that." She now has to be home by 10pm to keep her father happy.

"My parents are less strict with my brother because he's a boy, even though he's younger than me," she says. "To some extent it's that my father is concerned for me, but it's more about showing his authority."

There are taboos for women talking about sexual assaults. Many men blame women themselves, due to the clothes they wear or the fact they are in a certain place at a certain time. Women might also be accused of lying.

In the 18-month period under the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, between the election of Mohamed Morsi as president and the ousting of former President Hosni Mubarak, the authorities carried out so-called virginity tests ostensibly to prevent women lying about being raped.

At least six women taking part in a sit-in in Tahrir Square in March 2011 were subject to these tests. The military confirmed to researchers from Human Rights Watch that all female detainees underwent these tests so they could not accuse guards of rape in prison.

One of those women, Samira Ibrahim, filed a case against the military and the court ruled to make virginity tests illegal. But the army doctor accused of carrying out the "examinations" was acquitted in a military trial.

The history of attacks on women at protests goes back to 2005, when women at an anti-government demonstration were groped and assaulted. But it is widely acknowledged that celebrations of public holidays are a time for women to be wary of attacks.

During Eid festivities each year, women in downtown Cairo are targeted by groups of young men, and it is also common following football matches.

But the opening up of society since the toppling of Mubarak has allowed the creation of dozens of anti-harassment groups.

"After the revolution, these groups flourished. Before that we were just individuals who wanted to do something, but now we're organised," says Hassan Nassar.

He believes the only way to stamp it out is a dedicated security presence at large gatherings along with social awareness campaigns.

But until then, he is ready to help in Tahrir Square.