By Beena Sarwar
What happened on the streets of in Cairo on May 25 resonated around
the world, particularly with those of us in Pakistan, who saw
a sort of milder preview of the Cairo action eleven days earlier
on the streets of Lahore. Then, plainclothes policemen and policewomen
had attacked peaceful, unarmed demonstrators and targeted the
women for sexual abuse and humiliation by tearing their clothes.
In Egypt, they went a step further and besides beating them, stripped
some women naked, sexually abused and groped them.
What's going on here? At the risk of sounding facetious, it's
all about public space, stupid.
In our societies, despite all the progressiveness and apparent
liberalism that is emerging in the cities at least - and perhaps
partly as a reaction to it -- public space is shrinking for women.
At any rate, it is under attack. We'll come to that in a minute.
Let's first consider a fundamental (no pun intended) similarity
between Egypt and Pakistan: each is struggling to modernise in
the midst of unjust political economic and social systems, while
battling internal demons of traditionalists and orthodoxies that
incorrectly use the crutch of religion to justify all kinds of
injustices. The religion, of course, is Islam, to which everyone
pays much lip service. They'll talk
about the great respect they have for women, and how heaven lies
beneath a mother's feet, and how, on the Day of Judgement, you
shall be identified not by your father's but by your mother's
But when it comes to ground realities, it is a different
The ground realities are that any woman who defies the limits
or parameters set out for her by tradition - not religion, mind
tradition - is fair game. But it's not even as simple as that.
Women in our societies have already transgressed a fair number
Increasing numbers are in previously male-only or male-dominated
professions and spheres of society - airline pilots (and now even
air force, in Pakistan at least), engineers, doctors, lawyers,
scientists, dentists, politicians (even a prime minister in Pakistan).
But it is when they engage in any public activity that has connotations
for the power brokers, that the might of the state is unleashed
upon them. Policemen and women, who are representatives of the
state, are now encouraged and empowered to resort to violence
that can take on sexual connotations, including sexually harassing,
abusing, and tearing off the demonstrators' clothes in order to
humiliate them in public.
We've been seeing this phenomenon since the days of Gen Ziaul
Haq, starting with the horrific incident of 1984 when three females
were stripped naked and marched through the streets of Nawabpur,
near Multan, for a transgression supposedly committed by their
brother-in-law. The man himself died later, having been beaten
beyond recognition. Perhaps such incidents took place before but
were simply not reported.
But at least the state wasn't involved in this public humilation,
although political prisoners, including women, have long been
subjected to such abuse in the 'Land of the Pure'.
As the Egyptian activists said in a press release of June 1,
"It is the same old unethical weapon used by tyrants all
over history; if you want to humiliate a nation, target the dignity
of its women. If you want to oppress men, molest their women.
If you want to damage a village, rape its women. If you want a
prisoner to confess, threaten to rape his wife, sister or daughter!"
On May 14 in Lahore, representatives of the state in Pakistan
attempted such public humiliation for the first time when a policewoman
ripped the clothes of well known lawyer Asma Jahangir and some
of the other women participating in the token mini marathon on
a main road of Lahore. Their transgression: simply trying to make
a point - by running together with men on the side-street of a
main road, to assert the right of women to non-segregated public
There was no big deal about it - many political demonstrations
in Pakistan have been non-segregated or 'mixed'. So why attack
this particular event? Because the slogan of public space and
equality for women was like a red rag to the orthodox forces which
include, sadly, the police, the very institution that is supposed
to protect the citizenry from unlawful acts.
The unprovoked attack on the activists in Lahore was mirrored
with greater vengeance over a week later, by the police and government
supporters in Cairo. There, according to eyewitness accounts,
the police and pro-government supporters attacked pro-democracy
demonstrators, particularly women. Some were beaten, some had
their clothes torn off their bodies, leaving them virtually naked,
some were groped and manhandled. The testimonies that have since
been circulated make for horrific reading.
In response, the Association of Egyptian Mothers called on all
of Egypt to wear black on June 1 "calmly, and in bitter silence,
for the sake of a free future" and demanded the resignation
of the Interior Minister on the grounds that "women were
assaulted and had their clothes torn in the street because they
dared to say enough instead of remaining silent."
The Egyptian Mothers say they represent the silent majority of
women, housewives and working women, and assert that "silence
today is a crime
and we must stand up in united formation as a united people to
defend the Egyptian woman and girl."
"We emphasise that we are not from the Kifaya(Enough) movement
(which had called the demonstration of May 25) and do not belong
to any political force, legal or otherwise. But when the Egyptian
woman pays the price of her political participation with the sanctity
of her body and her honour, then every Egyptian mother and all
of Egypt will go out in clothes of mourning to tell the Interior
Minister: 'We want your
The Egyptian journalists' union has also demanded the dismissal
of Interior Minister Habib al-Adli. And another informal grouping
of women has launched a "White Ribbon national apology campaign,"
initiated by Ghada Shahbandar, a teacher and member of Kifaya,
together with a
female television presenter and a housewife. This campaign, popularised
by emails and cell phone text messaging has received tremendous
feedback and support, said Shahbander talking to AFP, in a
report posted by Al Jazeera in its English language website on
The call to wear black began apparently with the initiative of
a leading Muslim feminist Hiba Rauf Izzat, a political science
professor at Cairo University, who posted it on the internet two
days after the May 25 incident. "The next day it was all
over the place," she told AFP. "I just mirrored the
sentiment of thousands of people. It's not a movement, not a party,
it's just citizens fiercely defending what is left of their public
And that, it seems, is what it's all about.