Women’s Rights Activists Wield International, National Days in Egypt to Protest


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CAIRO, EGYPT – Sally Ali, 19, traveled 100 kilometers from her hometown to Cairo, Egypt’s capital, to celebrate Egyptian Women’s Day last month.

“It is a special day,” she says. “We wanted to celebrate it – it is our day. But how can we celebrate while Samira is crying?”  

Four days before Egyptian Women’s Day – and three days after International Women’s Day – an Egyptian military tribunal acquitted Ahmed Adel, a military doctor who had been charged with public obscenity after being accused of conducting forced virginity tests on seven female protesters the previous March. The court also denied that the tests occurred.

Activist Samira Ibrahim, who has become the face of this case, was the only one of these female protesters willing to testify. She was captured on camera crying outside the court after the acquittal.

Egyptians therefore decided to spend Egyptian Women’s Day on March 16 protesting in front of the High Court in support of Ibrahim. This call to protest instead of celebrating the day was initiated by Egyptian Women’s Union, an organization formed after the January 2011 revolution that toppled former President Hosni Mubarak’s regime.

Ibrahim participated in the protests on Egyptian Women’s Day. She said that the court's verdict was a violation of all Egyptians’ rights, not just hers, and that she would take the case to the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights. Later that day, she protested alone in front of the Defense Ministry carrying a placard saying, "You Will Not Break Me."

A few hundred women’s rights activists took to the streets in March, using the occasion of Egyptian Women’s Day to protest a recent court verdict that denied that virginity tests had been conducted on female protesters one year earlier. Several days before the verdict, International Women’s Day provided an even larger platform for activists to speak up as thousands of protesters marched for women’s rights. Women say that the streets are where they can have their voice after winning just 2 percent of elected seats in the country’s new Parliament.

Ibrahim was arrested on March 9, 2011, along with more than 170 other protesters during demonstrations in Tahrir Square. She and six other women say they were forced to undergo tests to determine if they were virgins while in detainment.

Ibrahim won a historic ruling last year in a civilian court, which declared that virginity tests on women in military custody are illegal. The practice was legally justified before this verdict by a vague clause in laws pertaining to military prisons that allow medical tests on suspects.

The protest on Egyptian Women’s Day attracted a few hundred people outside the High Court in opposition of the decision made days earlier. Among them were well-known Egyptian feminists, presidential candidates and members of Parliament.

Also on the steps of the High Court was Ahmed Harara, a dentist who lost both his eyes during the revolution – one during the first 18 days of it and the other during a police crackdown on protests in November. He said he was there in solidarity with Ibrahim and to protest the military rule that is "deliberately trying to break the revolts."  


But some say the turnout was a disappointment. Participant Alia Abdel Wahab, 23, a medical student, says the number of people who came to show solidarity with Ibrahim was small.

"This turnout shows how still this society is discriminative against women," she says. “There is a joke that men stand behind women only to harass them in public transportations but never get their back when they are humiliated. It is sadly true, and this number proves it."

Rasha Abdel Rahman, another activist who was arrested and subjected to a virginity test along with Ibrahim, declared that she will file a case against the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to prove that Ibrahim is not a liar.

The protesters carried signs condemning the military rule and the judicial system that acquitted the doctor. They also carried banners protesting military trials for civilians.

The call for protests on the Egyptian Women’s Day were not limited to Cairo. There were also protests in Alexandria, Monofya and Gharbya in Egypt as well as in front of the Egyptian Embassies in London, Washington and Brussels, according to the Egyptian Women's Union protest organizers.

The atmosphere was different from International Women’s Day, which fell a week before Egyptian Women’s Day. Thousands of women and men gathered in front of the journalists' syndicate to march to Parliament to hand demands of fair representation in the committee being selected to draft the country's new constitution.

"It is thrilling, bring tears to my eyes, good tears," says Dina Attia, 32, a teacher.

Attia says she attended last year’s International Women’s Day, and only a few dozen women showed up. She says they were attacked and sexually harassed by more than 200 angry men who condemned them for demanding the right to run for presidency.

"I was afraid to face the same shameful situation as last year, but thank God I did not,” she says. “The turnout is great. There is hope.”

Omar Ahmed, a founding member of the Egyptian Women’s Union and its general secretary, says that the march on International Women’s Day aimed to safeguard women’s rights.

"After one year of the revolution, the women might be the victim, as the women's position is in danger now,” he says. “So we made this march to have agreed demands from the all the NGOs. The women represent 50 percent of the population, which means we are fighting in order for 40 millions to have the rights and equal citizenship.”

Like Attia, Ahmed also expressed his optimism because of the higher number of people who participated in the march compared with last year.

"It means we have more supporters now,” Ahmed said. “I hope so.”

Protests, chants and placards were not the only means of expression. Graffiti became another outlet.

In anticipation of International Women’s Day, women’s rights activists spray-painted the walls of downtown Cairo with graffiti quoting famous lines from movies and TV series such as, "The girl is equal to the boy." Graffiti for Egyptian Women’s Day told Ibrahim and the half dozen other women who said they had also been subjected to virginity tests, "Do not shut up." Other graffiti featured Ibrahim’s face and poetry verses condemning the officers accused of conducting the tests.

Activists say that the streets are where women can have a voice after they won just 2 percent of the seats in Egypt’s new Parliament. Many say their rights are already under threat.

Mohamed al-Omda, deputy head of the People’s Assembly’s Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee, proposed last month a draft law to limit Egyptian women’s right to divorce.

Azza El Garf, a female member of Parliament representing the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, recently said that she opposed the 2008 ban on female genital cutting. She says it should be up to each girl to undergo the practice, which the World Health Organization calls a violation of human rights.

Amira Ahmed, 23, a translator and activist who participated in both protests, says this shows a lack of solidarity.

"We protest, demand and pressure,” Ahmed says. “But those who make the rules are working against us. It hurts – especially if it come from a woman like us. She should know better.”

At the end of March, Parliament selected a panel to draft the country’s new constitution. Protesters have been objecting to the Islamists' domination of the panel.

Ahmed says she is worried that women will end up with no rights if they don’t continue to speak up. The streets are the only place where they have the space to do so, she says.

“There is no political will to improve women conditions,” she says. “We do not have fair representation in the Parliament, so we need to keep our voices heard. We do not have the Parliament, but we still have the street. So we should keep the pressure there as long as we can.”