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Egypt's women face growing sexual harassment

On the night Hosni Mubarak fell from power, the crowds that rejoiced in Cairo's central square were so dense, so roiling and rowdy that Mohamed Assyouti couldn't push his way through when his girlfriend, Mariam Nekiwi, was assaulted several yards away.

"A group of men surrounded her from four directions and closed her off," he said.

First someone grabbed her groin, she said. Other hands groped the rest of her body, pinching hard and yanking at her clothes. She was shoved one way and then the other. The frenzy was so sudden, the crush so stifling, that she could barely see. She shouted, and then screamed. The reaction was swift.

"People started yelling at me to be quiet," recalled Nekiwi, a 24-year-old video editor, still shaken by the ordeal. "They said: 'Don't tarnish the revolution. Don't make a scene.' They said: 'We are men. We're sorry. Just go now.' "

Later that night, Feb. 11, CBS News correspondent Lara Logan came under what the network later described as a brutal and sustained sexual assault and beating by a mob of unidentified men in another part of Tahrir Square.

Logan's clothes were ripped off and her body was covered with welts and bruises, sources here said, before soldiers came to her rescue, firing live rounds in the air to disperse the attackers. She was evacuated to the U.S. and hospitalized for several days.

The attack on a high-profile female TV reporter shocked Americans and dominated U.S. news cycles, partly eclipsing the historic changes underway in Egypt.

It also challenged an inspiring narrative that had focused on nonviolent protesters and their idealistic calls for freedom from a despot.

Egyptians who knew of the attack, which was overshadowed by the broader tumult here, also were horrified. But many were not surprised.

Catcalls, fondling, indecent exposure and other forms of sexual harassment by strangers are an everyday occurrence for women on the streets of Cairo, according to human rights groups, social scientists, diplomats and interviews with Egyptians. Moreover, predatory packs have brutalized women at several public places, including a soccer stadium, in recent years, according to witnesses and local news accounts.

"There is increasing violence against women in our society," said Nehad Abul Komsan, head of the Egyptian Center for Women's Rights, a nongovernmental group that campaigns against such abuse.

Theories abound to explain the violence. Unable to find decent jobs or affordable apartments, many men don't marry until their mid-30s, social scientists say. Premarital sex is taboo, so sexual frustration is said to run abnormally high.

At the same time, analysts say, prosecutions are rare. Many families pressure wives, daughters and sisters to keep quiet after being attacked rather than invite scandal. So-called honor killings, the slaying of women by male relatives for supposedly tarnishing the family's honor, ensure their silence. Such killings are common in Egypt, according to the National Center for Social and Criminological Research.

Politics are also to blame. Civil society was shredded under Mubarak and traditional respect for women frayed as well. Then, in May 2005, government security officers were filmed tearing the clothes and pulling the hair of four women — three journalists and a lawyer — at a protest rally.

"After that, we saw dramatic change," said Komsan, of the women's rights center. "It was like a very clear message that anything was allowed. Women became an open target."

In the summer of 2006, authorities were embarrassed when women were molested on a major street in Cairo during celebrations to mark the end of Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting. The following year, police announced that a crackdown had resulted in hundreds of arrests.

But rights lawyers said most of the men were quickly released.

In 2008, Komsan's group polled 2,020 Egyptians and 109 non-Egyptian women. The results: 83% of Egyptian women and 98% of foreign women surveyed said they had suffered sexual harassment. About half the women said they were harassed every day.

The research showed that more than two-thirds of the women reporting abuse wore traditional Muslim head scarves or robes. Some even wore a flowing body-length black burka, with veil and gloves. Fewer than a third of the women wore Western attire.

The current U.S. State Department travel advisory for American visitors to Egypt warns that unescorted women are "vulnerable to sexual harassment and verbal abuse." It cites "increasing reports over the last several months of foreigners being sexually groped in taxis and in public places."

"This is a daily phenomenon for all women now," said Hafez abu Seada, secretary-general of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights. "Unfortunately, it's become a very common practice."

It's also the premise behind "678," a feature film that opened last month in Cairo. Inspired by true stories, the movie portrays three women — one veiled and poor, one middle-class and striving, the other rich and privileged — who fight back after a lifetime of indignities and mistreatment. Some critics denounced the film, warning that it would tarnish Egypt's image, but women have packed theaters to see it.

Mohamed Diab, the director, shot some scenes at a packed Cairo soccer match last February. His script, which includes a gang assault on the rich woman, proved prophetic.

"We went in only 50 steps, and men in the crowd grabbed my actress and pulled her away," he said. "Her clothes were ripped off. She fainted. The actors had to fight their way over to rescue her."

At least some of the pro-democracy protesters saw the mostly peaceful demonstrations at Tahrir Square as a way to change all that.

The protesters who occupied the square for 18 days developed an unusual bond. They not only risked their lives against gunmen and thugs, many risked their futures, saying they feared that Mubarak's secret police could imprison and torture them if they failed.

Cultural barriers quickly fell. Men and women mingled freely, a rare sight in a culture that still segregates the sexes in many schools and offices. Teenage girls and women slept in makeshift tents on the square each night. Many had never slept away from home before. Some felt so safe they brought their children.

For the first 16 days, no sexual molestation or other crimes were reported. Women spoke of the dawn of a new era.

But on Feb. 10, rumors that Mubarak might step down drew tens of thousands more people to the square. Many had waited out the turmoil until the victory seemed clear. Though still primarily festive, the tenor of the crowd changed.

As the sun set, Beatrice Ghirinjhelli, a 46-year-old former teacher who grew up in Egypt but lives in Greece, entered the square from a bridge that crosses the Nile. As the crowd inched forward, a man groped her from behind.

"He repeated it several times," she said. "I screamed. The crowd was so heavy, I couldn't pick him out. I felt like a piece of meat at the butcher."

The next night, when Mubarak finally quit, another man groped Ghirinjhelli the same way.

"I managed to grab his arm," she said. "But he turned and got away. And then another man touched me too. I was so disgusted, and I just turned around and left."

In the square, Doha Alzohairy, 33, was celebrating when a group of men abruptly closed around her. She is convinced they didn't know one another. They kept their hands low and their faces blank. She tried not to panic.

"They all started to touch me and grab me and pinch me all over," she said. "The arms came from everywhere. It was terrifying. I worried that if I fell on the ground, no one would see me. So I started to shout and punch and scream and swear. But I wanted people to hear me.

"It was so humiliating," she said. "I looked like I was crazy. Finally a man grabbed me from behind. I struggled against him, but he said, 'I will help.' And he helped me escape."

Logan, the CBS reporter, has yet to publicly describe her ordeal. No one was arrested for the assault, and given Egypt's current turmoil, no arrests are likely.

Logan may have been singled out because state-run TV had spent days demonizing foreign reporters as U.S. spies and agents of Israel or, incongruously, backers of two extremist groups, Hamas or Hezbollah. Other reporters were beaten and harassed by pro-Mubarak forces during the uprising.

But Komsan, the women's rights activist, said the assault shows that violence against women isn't just a problem of the past.

"The respite we saw at Tahrir was temporary," she said sadly. "It means a revolution doesn't end all our problems."

bob.drogin@latimes.com

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