Women behaving boldly

A protest law described by human rights groups as highly restrictive was passed on November 24, bracketed by two protests, both quickly and harshly dispersed. The week before, 21 girls and young women were arrested at a pro-Brotherhood protest in Alexandria and given harsh jail terms that were widely criticized. Two days after the protest law was passed, over 60 protesters rallying against military trials were arrested outside the Shura Council.

In both cases, controversy focused less on the right to protest and more on the figure of the female demonstrator.

In the Alexandria case, criticism of the sentences — which were reduced following an appeal — was widely framed by the fact that the defendants were female. In the case of the Shura Council protest on November 26, it was the mistreatment of female protesters that sparked outrage.

No special treatment

The protest outside the Shura Council against military trials for civilians was quickly and violently dispersed. Police used water cannons, teargas and batons to disperse the crowd of approximately 200, beating and detaining several protesters. Activist Nazly Hussein, tweeted immediately following her arrest that the police sexually harassed her and other female protesters while detaining them.

“If the images had been only of the men being beaten there would not have been this outrage,” says Rasha Azab, a journalist and activist and one of the detained protesters.

When the prosecution ordered their release, Azab and the other 13 women refused to leave the New Cairo Police Station until the men were also released. The women were beaten, forced into a police van, and ultimately left at the side of a desert road late in the evening.

“They wanted to release us,” Azab explains, “They just wanted to solve their problem.”

“We refused, we refused, we refused,” Azab says. “We’re protesters with the men, we went down for the same reason, were arrested with them for the same reason. We did not want special treatment as women.”

Ten members of the constitutional assembly suspended their participation in protest over these events. They decided to resume their work, however, once the 14 female detainees had been released later that evening. A remaining 24 defendants were remanded to custody for 15 days and one still remains in detention. Activists Ahmed Maher and Alaa Abd El Fattah were accused of organizing the protest and are now also in detention.

The “Alexandria girls”

In the case of the 21 Alexandria defendants, dubbed the “Alexandria girls,” 7 of the defendants were minors, and of the remainder, none but one was older than 22. They were arrested on what was the first march organized by the anti-government 7 am movement on the Alexandria Corniche on October 1.

The minors were sentenced to an unspecified amount of time in a juvenile detention facility, that would be reviewed periodically, and the adults to 11 years and one month imprisonment and a fine on charges of illegal assembly, thuggery, vandalism of private property and possession of objects intended to be used to attack civilians.

In a polarized landscape, figures from across the political spectrum spoke up to criticize the severity of the sentences.

Ahmed Awadella, an activist on gender-related issues, says that in addition to the fact that the defendants were female, “there were two other factors, their age and the severity of the sentence.”

“It showed how politicized the case was,” he says.

Similarly harsh sentences in the case of male protesters have not generated the same media coverage, or outrage. In another recent case, male Al-Azhar university students — not much older than the defendants in this case — were sentenced to 17 years in jail. There was little public outcry.

Sitting in her living room beneath a laminated poster of her 15-year-old daughter, Mowada Mostafa, who at that time was in detention, Lobna Youssef Mohamed explained the widespread condemnation of the verdict by invoking certain notions of femininity.

“Everyone knows that boys throw stones and girls run from the police. Boys may overreact, but not girls,” she says.

Other commentators critical of the Brotherhood suggested that the young women had been manipulated by the organization. Such an argument fits with the now prevalent media representation of Brotherhood supporters as “sheep” and with the particular vulnerability often ascribed to young women.

In any case there was widespread shock at the severity of the sentences, which led to the unprecedented speed of the appeal process. On December 7, the sentences were reduced to a suspended sentence for the adults and three months probation for the minors. 

The priority, says Ahmed Chazli, director of the Alexandria office of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, was to calm public indignation. A piece by Abdel Wahab Shaban and Amany Zaky in Al-Wafd newspaper described the pardon as “a victory for Egyptian chivalry.”

Targets of political blackmail

Protesters arrested at the Shura Council describe how women were targeted in sexualized violence.

“They hit the men, and they grabbed the women between the breasts,” Azab recounts. “And if a guy has long hair, they pull it, and try to break women who look strong,” she adds.

Several of the relatives of the Alexandria defendants say that when the boys tried to intervene, the police said to them: “We don’t want you today, just the girls.” They say that the police targeted the young women because Brotherhood demonstrations have involved increasing numbers of women after the arrest of the organization’s all-male leadership and many of its male members.

Hamdi Khalaf, also at EIPR and one of the lawyers on the Alexandria case, explains that women are often targeted because “many still think in an outdated way, that it is not the females themselves who decide if they go down or not.”

The idea, he says, is that the families will stop sending or will at least prevent their daughters from joining demonstrations for fear of the consequences.

Mohamed said the state went after women because “our girls are precious to us.”

Those outraged by the case of the “Alexandria girls” often suggested that the police had crossed a “red line” by targeting the young women.

Muzn Hassan, director of the NGO Nazra for Feminist Studies, says, “of course none of this is new. It’s a link in a long chain.”

Other links in the chain that Hassan points to include the gang rapes in and around Tahrir Square during mass demonstrations, the stripping and brutal beating in the square of the “woman in the blue bra,” as she was described in the media, under the watch of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, and the so-called “virginity tests” performed by the military in March 2011.

“Whether it was under the military council, the Brotherhood, or in the post-June 30 period, gender-based violence against women has occurred,” says Hassan. “And it is not women from one political current or another who are targeted.”

“There is a long history of the authorities targeting women and their bodies,” Azab says. “They see women’s bodies as a tool for political blackmail.”

Hassan suggests that the attacks on women have intensified after the fall of former President Hosni Mubarak, since the question of public participation has become so charged — and threatening — for the authorities.

Good girls and bad girls

The most positive consequence of the Alexandria case, says Chazli, “is that people who had been most resistant to the idea of women in protests have been defending them.”

He points to Brotherhood supporters on Facebook using images of the defendants as profile pictures. “I don’t think they would have used a picture of a woman before,” he says.

The Alexandria defendants’ families and supporters were at great pains to emphasize that they were different from other inmates.

While Hoda Abdel Rahman, mother of 15-year-old Selma Reda, complained of the cockroaches and other insects in the detention center, what she and other mothers of the defendants were most horrified by were the other inmates. “They swear using words our daughters have never heard,” she said. Her daughter and her co-defendants “are well brought up, they are different from the others,” Abdel Rahman said, adding that “Selma used to be too shy to speak and wouldn’t even sit with her male cousins.”

Both Abdel Rahman and Mohamed say that their daughters had a positive influence in the detention center in which they were held, and that the other inmates there had started to join them in praying and reading the Quran.

In court, defendants are dressed in compulsory white. Child-like faces, white clothes, and white headscarves. During their appeal, each adult defendant carried a single pink flower.

The Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice newspaper featured images of the defendants with halos around their faces, dubbing them hara’ir.

“’Hara’ir,’” Azab explains, “ are girls who are chaste, who are pure, who are home early, who do not drink.”

She describes it as a discriminatory term. “It’s not just about men and women, even within the category of women, they break it down.”

“The Brotherhood believe that there is such a thing as an honorable girl, and a girl who is not honorable,’ says Hassan.

These ideas, Azab says, are just a more extreme form of what is believed by a large proportion of society.

The Alexandria defendants also asserted themselves in court. They sang Brotherhood songs, raised the Rabea symbol and chanted.

“To the media, they were saying ‘we are the terrorists you are speaking about,’” Shaimaa Ibrahim, one of the defense lawyers, says.

Awadella suggests that the defiance and strength the defendants exhibited throughout the trial was evocative of the public’s emotions in a way that similar images of boys may not be.

“The resilience of young boys is not as surprising in terms of expected gender roles, so would not have so much of an effect,” he says. “Masculinity and resilience together are often seen as threatening, especially in the context of protests and anti-coup protests.

Both the Shura Council protest and the Alexandria cases were a scandal, a “fadeeha,” a term that has sexual connotations. But Azab says, “They were not scandals because of what happened to the women, they were scandals because you cannot treat peaceful protesters in that way.”

Naira Antoun 

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