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9 June 2012updated 27 Sep 2015 5:35am

Egyptian protesters against sexual assault are sexually assaulted

As mob heckles and gropes demonstrators, are women's rights going backwards in Egypt?

By Helen Lewis

An Egyptian rally to protest against sexual harassment ended when the participants were attacked and groped by a group of men, the Associated Press has reported.

Around 50 women, surrounded by male supporters, turned out for the demonstration on Friday in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, holding placards which declared that “harassment is barbaric“. But a mob of hundreds of men overwhelmed the supporters and began to heckle and grope the women. 

Sally Zohney, who helped organise the protest, voiced her disgust on Twitter: “I’m traumatised by the testimonials friends r sharing of today’s attack”.

There are growing numbers of reports from women who were involved in last year’s Arab Spring protests that the mood in the country is turning, and that street harassment is returning. The writer and activist Ahdaf Soueif told last week’s New Statesman magazine: “Women were very careful to say that they were taking part in the revolution as citizens. Social problems such as harassment on the streets, and so on, vanished during the 18 days. They’re back now. What is new is the way that women respond. There’s graffiti, stickers, women taking self-defence classes, so the fightback is on.”

Journalist Mona El-Tawahy is one of those who have been injured in protests: she was arrested in Cairo last year and detained for 12 hours, and both her arms were broken. She reported that she had been sexually assaulted while in detention, and later wrote an essay for Foreign Policy magazine about the “war on women” in the Middle East. It argued:

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An entire political and economic system — one that treats half of humanity like animals — must be destroyed along with the other more obvious tyrannies choking off the region from its future. Until the rage shifts from the oppressors in our presidential palaces to the oppressors on our streets and in our homes, our revolution has not even begun.