CAIRO -- A leading international human rights group has urged Egyptian authorities to investigate reports of assaults on female protesters who recently demonstrated in Tahrir Square against sexual harassment.
Witnesses said a peaceful protest by a small group of women turned violent Friday after several of them were attacked by a group of men who tried to rip off their clothes. Other men attempted to shield the women from the violence, but protesters said the mob was overwhelming.
In a report condemning the incident, London-based Amnesty International described the reported violence as part of a series of recurring attacks against female journalists and human rights advocates in Egypt.
"These forms of sexual harassment, sexual assault and other forms of ill-treatment against women protesters are an attempt to intimidate them and prevent them from participating fully in public life," Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Amnesty International's deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa said in the report.
Lobna Darwish, one of the organizers of the protest, told the human rights group: "There were hands groping us and stealing our belongings from our bags and pockets. It was chaos, we couldn't tell who was with us and who was against us."
Scores of men targeted the march in an effort to "break it up and offend and assault participants," journalist Sarah El Deeb posted on her Twitter account.
Egypt's ruling military council, which took power when Hosni Mubarak was ousted in last year's uprising, has publicly criticized female protesters who participate in Tahrir Square sit-ins.
Mobs of men as well as security forces who have assaulted female protesters over the last 16 months have not been punished, the Amnesty International report stated. In December, women were beaten by soldiers, dragged by their hair and stripped in the streets. Several female protesters also reported that the army forcibly conducted virginity tests on them.
The Friday protest in Tahrir Square was an attempt to create awareness about sexual harassment, which has long been rampant in the Arab world's most populous country.
"These women stood up to demand an end to sexual harassment. What they got was intimidation and sexual assault," Sahraoui said in the report.
Several human rights advocates and activists view the recurring violence as a means to "dishonor" women in Egypt's conservative culture. "Using sexual harassment and assault against women protesters is a tactic that was frequently used under former president Hosni Mubarak," the report said.
-- Reem Abdellatif
Photo: Egyptian women hold placards calling for the end of sexual harassment on women who take part in demonstrations at a protest on Tahrir Square in Cairo on June 8, 2012. Credit: Andre Pain / European Pressphoto Agency