Egyptian women are growing increasingly angry and militant as they deal with one of the unintended consequences of the Arab Spring: an epidemic of sexual assault that law enforcement has failed to contain.
The backlash, which includes self-defense courses for women and even threats of violent retaliation, is fueled by ultraconservative Islamists who suggest that women invite assault by attending anti-government protests where they mix with men.
At marches against sexual harassment in Cairo, women have brandished kitchen knives in the air. Stenciled drawings on building walls depict girls fighting off men with swords. Signs threaten to «cut off the hand» of attackers.
The reaction comes at a particularly heated moment. While the latest wave of demonstrations against President Mohammed Morsi’s rule has cooled in recent days, large protests have grown increasingly violent.
A hard-core minority of demonstrators has vowed to take on the government, and police have responded with force. About 70 people have been killed in clashes with security forces since Jan. 25, the second anniversary of the revolt that deposed longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak.
Harassment has long been a problem in this patriarchal society, and attacks against female demonstrators have occurred under the democratically elected Morsi, the military council that ruled before him and Mubarak, who governed the Arab world’s most populous country for nearly three decades.
The new element, however, is the increasingly sexual nature of the violence.
Sexual assaults at protests, where women have been groped, stripped and even raped, have risen both in number and intensity in the past year, reaching a peak on the uprising’s anniversary.
On that day alone, activists reported two dozen cases of assaults against women at demonstrations in and around Cairo’s central Tahrir Square, one of which involved the rape of a 19-year-old. The United Nations responded by urging the government to take action.
Activists say the attacks are organized by opponents of the demonstrations, who aim to make protests seem less representative by removing women from the scene. To date, no specific groups have been charged.
Hard-line Islamists have seized on the issue to propose their own solution: limit female protesters to designated areas.
On Monday, members of the human rights commission of the Islamist-dominated legislative assembly criticized women for rallying among men and in areas considered unsafe.
While they urged passage of a new law to regulate demonstrations and facilitate police protection, one prominent member said that women should not go to protests.
«Sometimes, the girl herself is fully responsible for rape because she puts herself in this situation,» lawmaker Adel Afify said in comments carried by several Egyptian newspapers.
The remarks followed a video posted last week by a hard-line cleric, who said women headed to protests were «crusaders» and «devils,» who were «going there to get raped.» The cleric, Mohammed Abdullah, and Afify are both members of the ultra-conservative Salafi movement.
Women’s rights groups were infuriated, denouncing the comments in demonstrations in Egypt and elsewhere Tuesday. A Beirut-based online movement, The Uprising of Women in the Arab World, called for worldwide protests in front of Egyptian embassies, posting photos of demonstrations from a string of countries on their Facebook page.
On the same day in Egypt, Michael Posner, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, criticized what he said was the failure of the country’s criminal justice system to identify and bring to justice perpetrators «involved in an alarming number of rapes and other acts of violence against women.»
In meetings with Egyptian officials, including the foreign and justice ministers, the nation’s top cleric and a presidential adviser, Posner said he expressed Washington’s concern that the rights of women are not being prioritized alongside other key issues such as transparency, rule of law and building a better climate for civil society.
Last weekend in the leafy Cairo neighborhood of Maadi, dozens of women were learning how to fight back. They attended a self-defense course on how to escape an attacker by striking at weak points on the neck and face. The carrying of knives, after proper training, was presented as a personal choice, although one that could carry heavy consequences for both defender and attacker.
«We’re facing daily sexual harassment in the streets, and we aim to defend ourselves,» said Menna Essam, a 26-year-old Internet marketer. Like most women taking the course, she said she had experienced physical harassment where self-defense techniques would have been useful.
«Of course I faced it growing up. … The first time I was maybe 10 or 11 years old. Someone followed me on the way home and grabbed me. At the time, I didn’t even know what harassment was,» she said.
The free course was organized by Tahrir Bodyguard, one of several groups that have emerged to protect female demonstrators at street protests. The courses aim above all to boost women’s confidence and deter what organizers call daily harassment.
Women have also been coming forward to talk about attacks, defying long-held taboos in the conservative country.
One who spoke to private Egyptian television channels at length last week, Yasmine Al-Baramawy, described how a gang of men assaulted her for more than an hour near Tahrir Square, dragging her through the streets, tearing off her shirt and cutting her pants.
On Monday, Egypt’s National Council of Women also entered the debate, adopting activists’ view that the attacks are organized.
In a statement, the council said it «condemned the abuses suffered by Egyptian women from harassment and rape in Tahrir Square recently, which is systematic and carried out by organized groups to force women not to participate and express their views.»
Images promoting Tuesday’s global protest – from Arab countries and elsewhere – have been among the most militant. The Uprising movement, for example, has turned a photo of a veiled woman brandishing a knife at a Cairo protest last week into a poster.
Another image featured on the page shows the late Egyptian singer Umm Kalthoum, an iconic figure in the nation’s struggle against Israel following the 1967 Middle East war. She is seen holding a superimposed kitchen knife, with a printed lyric from one of her most famous songs that says: «Patience has limits!»