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Egyptians Form Human Shields To Protect Female Protesters

Protesters form groups to protect Egyptian women at demonstrations; 91 cases of sexual assault reported at Tahrir Square
Women chant slogans from their windows to show their support for an anti-Mursi protest by police officers and protesters after the funeral of Brigadier General Mohamed Hani, a senior police officer from Alexandria, in the streets of Alexandria July 1, 2013.  Mohamed Hani was shot dead by unknown gunmen who ambushed his car in the Sinai Peninsula town of El Arish on Saturday, security sources and state media said.   REUTERS/Asmaa Waguih (EGYPT - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST) - RTX118S7

As violence against women protesting in Tahrir Square grew, Egyptians were taking measures to provide safety for the female protesters. In one instance, males have formed a human shield around women, so that attackers cannot get close to them.

"Morsi, get out!" hundreds of women chanted in Tahrir Square as they held hands and waved Egyptian flags. Surrounding them was a human shield that, according to the women and the men, was necessary to protect them from sexual harassment and assault. No men were allowed in the circle, and males who tried to get in so will be kicked out immediately, unless they are small boys.

The women — some veiled and some not — and their male protectors are walking toward Tahrir Square. It’s already getting dark, and that means women usually have to be careful. After the sun goes down, the square's demonstrating crowds grow, getting more packed by the minute. As a woman, it is not safe to venture to the square alone, the females in the circle tell Al-Monitor.

"We don’t want to be a target for frustrated men, but still we feel that we have to go to these protests and make sure our voices are being heard. By this, we let the government know that we cannot be ignored," explains a woman in a black veil.

Under the presidency of Mohammed Morsi, she has experienced difficulties as a woman. Men intimidated her on the street and sometimes they even touched her. She believes this is a result of the government's "ridiculous ideas."

"For example, the Islamists think it’s okay if women are being circumcised. Also, they wanted to change the marriage age for girls to 9 years old. It doesn’t matter if these laws are going to be passed or not, with these bizarre statements, they give the impression that it’s normal," she says. 

Since the start of the June 30 protests, a number of sexual harassment cases in Tahrir Square have been reported. A few girls were raped by male protesters, including a 22-year-old Dutch woman who was attacked by several men. According to her doctor, she is in bad shape. On Monday, she traveled back to Holland with her father. 

The Egyptian army has taken measures to prevent future attacks on foreigners. On Tuesday, they released a statement noting that people holding foreign passports cannot enter Tahrir, unless they are journalists.

Human Rights Watch says that there have been 91 incidents of sexual assault in Tahrir Square over the past four days. Groups of men plan these attacks carefully. Some say the attacks are staged by thugs who are abusing a security vacuum and confident of escaping prosecution. Others say the assaults are organized to scare women from joining protests.

The women’s protest ends at the square, where hundreds of females have gathered. A young man with a flag draped around his shoulders is cheering at the women in the circle. 

"Amazing, right?’’ the young activist Mo, 23, tells Al-Monitor. "I really like it when women form their own group. Egyptian women are standing up for themselves. Again."

Mo is accompanying his female friend Sherine. The two met during the January 2011 protests where Mo jumped in front of Sherine and took a rubber bullet for her when they were running away from police. They have since become best friends, even though they are from different worlds.

She is from the so-called upper class, while he is from a lower class. Usually, classes in Egypt hardly mix, but when the revolution started, this changed for many, including Sherine and Mo. It doesn’t matter which class you're from, so long as you share the same values in life.

In a local cafe near Tahrir, the couple talks about Morsi, whom they blame for dividing Egyptians over the last couple of months, a declining economy and the reduced importance of women’s rights. A group of local young men join them for tea and coffee. After that, they are heading back to Tahrir Square. The men keep an eye on Sherine, to make sure she's not in danger. She has never been assaulted before.

"The media makes us believe that you're are always a target when you are female, but I never experienced difficulties. Most protests are peaceful," she says.  

Female empowerment groups like Tahrir Bodyguard also play a significant role in the protection of females during protests. Tahrir Bodyguard is a non-governmental and non-political group made up of men and women who intervene when people are being assaulted. They wear neon yellow vests and helmets, so that people can always recognize them as "the good guys." People who notice that someone is under threat of sexual violence can call one of the volunteers

A group spokesperson says, "We aim for zero cases of sexual terrorism in Tahrir and keep on working until every person can express their opinion without getting raped or assaulted." According to them, hundreds of volunteers are on the streets every day.

The group is constantly looking for new volunteers because they cannot guarantee safety for all women in Cairo, as the number of protesters continues to rise from what is said to be 23 million — a world record.

In Maadi, a neighborhood in Cairo, however, a small protest is taking place at a crossover in the middle of the street. Women, men and children are singing, cheering and dancing. A guy grabs a microphone and sings an old Egyptian song. This protest is definitely not on the news, because it’s relatively small. Still, people here want to make a statement about Morsi too.

A mother of two tells Al-Monitor that she is here instead of Tahrir because it feels safer, especially for women and children. "Egyptians do not have to go to the square to make a statement. Why would I be in a crowded place if I have this peaceful protest around the corner? Nobody will ever harass me here," she says as she starts singing again.

Brenda Stoter is a Dutch journalist who writes about Egypt and Syria and about Kurds in Iraq and Turkey. Her articles have been published by Al Jazeera as well as featured in Dutch national newspapers and magazines, including Algemeen DagbladNRC NextHet Parool and Elsevier. On Twitter: @BrendaStoter

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