CAIRO - As thousands massed Cairo’s Tahrir Square marking the one-year anniversary of the Egyptian uprising that ousted former President Hosni Mubarak, men and women alike participated in rowdy mix celebrating freedom and protesting the continued rule of the military junta.

But as the sun set, the joy, determination and feelings of national unity gave way for Tahrir Square’s women to a more menacing atmosphere. And by nightfall, they had become the target of repeated cases of harassment and assault, according to women interviewed by The Media Line found.

Around 7:30 p.m., Heather, an Arab-American living in the city, and her two roommates were traversing the center of the main square. A group of men began harassing them and surrounded them on all sides, trapping them, she said, asking to be identified by her first name only.

“They started fighting over who was going to do what,” Heather told local Egyptian news site Bikyamasr.com in an exclusive interview. She came forward after seeing the report of a foreign woman who was stripped naked and assaulted only hours after her own assault.

“My roommates and I fell to the ground when they attacked us. The people pulled our pants off even as we yelled and tried to fight,” she recounted. She said the men physically assaulted her.

The incident was not the only instance of sexual violence perpetrated against women in the iconic central Cairo square. A few hours later, a mob assaulted another, unnamed woman, ripping off her clothes and beating her as well in front of her husband. There were unconfirmed reports that the men also violated her with their hands.

Throughout the day on Wednesday, women slowly began to report incidents of harassment, groping and grabbing. One foreign journalist who asked to remain unidentified said she was grabbed on the buttocks  while walking through the square.

Incidents of sexual violence towards women are commonplace during large gatherings in Egypt. The reasons have been the subject of intense debate in the country, with many attributing to “sexual urges” or the inability for men to marry due to a lack of jobs. But experts who follow harassment and violence toward women are skeptical about the street wisdom.

Rebecca Chiao – a co-founder of the groundbreaking Harassmap.org, which details where harassment in Cairo occurs – told The Media Line that there is simply not enough research done on why violence is prevalent at large gatherings.

“Sexual harassment is often a symptom of dynamics regarding power, and the aggression against weaker segments of society that results from feeling the need to exert power,” she said. “I say this because as the pressures on people have risen and risen over the last years. We have seen sexual harassment rise along with aggressiveness on the street, bad treatment in the workplace and sectarian violence.”

Chiao dismissed the explanation of sexual urges. “The old and married men and the eight-year-old kids who grope women, including me, are a sign that it's not a sexual urge driving harassers but something else,” she said.

Sexual violence toward women in Egypt had been a simmering concern since 2006 when mobs of young men attacked women at a Cairo cinema, groping and ripping at their clothes. The international media had largely ignored it, except for a few articles on the “enduring problem of sexual harassment in Egypt.”

But last February 11 it came to the world’s attention when a mob at Tahrir Square brutally attacked Lara Logan, a reporter for the US television network CBS’ 60 Minutes show, during celebrations of Mubarak’s downfall.

The reports of harassment during Wednesday’s celebrations ignited angry responses, particularly on the social networks and micro-blogging site Twitter. Outraged Egyptian activists lashed out at the protesters while others countered it was the work of paid thugs who had infiltrated the square to cause trouble.

Overall, the sense of anger was strong, with the majority condemning the attacks on women. Ahmed Aggour, a leading activist, wrote on Twitter that one way to end violence toward women would be “if a few harassers are made a proper example of, the rest should behave.”

Instances of sexual assaults on female journalists covering the events in Tahrir Square have continued in the year since Mubarak’s ouster.

According to studies conducted by the Egyptian Center for Women’s Right (ECWR) in 2008, 98% of all foreign women and 83% of Egyptian women surveyed had experienced sexual harassment in Egypt. Nearly two thirds of Egyptian men confessed to harassing women but more than half faulted women themselves for “bringing it on,” the poll found.

Chiao said that by focusing on the early days of the uprising, when harassment of women was minimal, researchers and women’s advocates can gain pointers about how to address the problem.

“We look at Egypt a decade or two ago, as well as in the first days of the revolution, and the important point we see is that ordinary people - neighbors, bystanders, whoever - were motivated by pride, the real Egyptian values and traditions, and were empowered to speak up,” she explained.  “People didn’t feel like ‘they shouldn't get involved’ rather they felt that they had a right as residents, as citizens, as Egyptians to set the social norms of what's okay and what's not okay in the streets of their own neighborhood.”

For her, this new sense of pride that resonated with the people on the ground resulted in not ignoring harassment around them. It enabled people to speak out and antagonize perpetrators. In the 1960s, she said, people would have chased down harassers and shaved their heads as a mark of shame.

“The only thing with the power to change this situation is for all of us, bystanders, neighbors, ordinary people,” Chiao said, “to change the social atmosphere in the streets ..  that tolerates harassers to one where if someone is caught harassing, all the people around him rise up against him and tell him to stop.”

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