x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

The year that women found their voice, and paid a price

This has been the year of the protester, and the female variety in particular is playing a bigger role than ever before.

'If one of you were to be stabbed in the head with a piece of iron, that would be better for him than touching a woman who is not permissible for him," said the Prophet Mohammed.

I, like the rest of the world, watched in horror as the Egyptian military beat up and degraded women protesters, their supposed "sisters" in Islam, with such violence showing no respect for the principle of sanctity of women in religious and Arab culture.

The men in uniform, soldiers and police who are mainly Muslims, seem to have forgotten their religion while on the rampage, attacking protesters and even stripping covered-up women.

Thank God for social media and the web; until the emergence of "visual evidence" of these abuses many women might have felt safe in Cairo going out and protesting. But clearly, the idea that "we will be protected by our brothers in Islam" has been shattered.

As a woman who has protested for many causes in several countries, I have seen social and religious rules broken in the protesting arena. Indeed, the only thing women who demonstrate can expect is the unexpected. But that is no reason to accept the injustice in Egypt.

I had goosebumps watching thousands of Egyptian women remind the Egyptian army: "Women are a red line!"

Coming from all walks of life and in all forms of dress, hijab or without, women hit the streets in a protest against the mistreatment. One protester in particular, dubbed unfortunately as the "blue bra girl", is a covered woman who was stripped of her top, exposing her blue underwear as the men continued to kick and hit her while she was on the ground.

It was beyond disgusting and shameful. How dare they touch her, let alone beat her up like that? Treatment of this "Tahrir woman," as online activists took to calling her, must not go unpunished.

The girl in the video wishes to remain anonymous, and who can blame her after the humiliation and abuse at the hands of the military, the very entity once entrusted as the protector of a nation?

The military said it "strongly regretted" what it called transgressions, but these are just words. Human Rights Watch reported that the Egyptian military has not investigated or prosecuted anyone for these or earlier acts. For instance, nothing has been done about the sexual assault of at least seven women by officers back in March in the military prison in Hikestep.

In fact, Samira Ibrahim, the only one among the seven who filed a formal complaint with the military prosecutor, has been receiving threatening phone calls.

There is always a great risk to anyone reporting sexually related abuses, with the female victim often becoming the target of anger and accusations. Time and again, regardless of where it happens, the victim ends up carrying a stigma imposed by the society of somehow being in the wrong. I know people who said of the women that got abused in Cairo that they "shouldn't have been down there in the first place, what did they expect?"

Perhaps not surprisingly, these comments are most often made by women themselves, who need to dissociate themselves from what they see by blaming the victim.

It will be a difficult time for Egyptians as they struggle to find their feet again in a muddle of betrayal and elevated expectations. And as Islamists dominate the ongoing parliamentary elections, it will be interesting to see if having them in power helps protect the sanctity of women, without oppressing them.

This has truly been the year of the protester. Time magazine picked a female protester as its "Person of the Year" for 2011. The magazine might have been inspired by a female protestor from one of the Occupy protests around the world. But the criteria applies to the tens of thousands of Middle Eastern women who have hit the streets for their beliefs, sometimes paying an unexpected price.