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September 23, 2017

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New Egyptian president faces test on violence against women

With the election of the first Islamist president in Egypt's history, the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohammed Morsi, violence against women has become a hot issue.

True, there have been troubling attacks on female activists since the revolution began in January 2011. Who can forget the infamous photo of a female demonstrator stripped to the waist, her blue bra exposed, as one soldier stomps on her stomach while two others drag her along on the street?

But many women fear that, as Islamists jockey with the military for power, these kinds of incidents will multiply. Egyptian media have reported several nasty episodes in the last week, including stories of women being harassed or assaulted because they were unveiled or "immodest."

So, this week, Egyptian human-rights organizations and some opposition parties demanded that Morsi take urgent measures to prevent more violence toward women. "The reason these organizations acted," says Heba Morayef, a researcher in Human Rights Watch's Cairo office, "is because they are concerned about what the Brotherhood's positions are going to be."

How Morsi responds will provide an important signal to Egyptians, and the world, about what kind of system the Islamists want.

Assaults against female demonstrators were occurring long before the Muslim Brotherhood and the hard-line Salafis' Nour Party won 70 percent of the seats in parliament. In one of the most notorious incidents, in March, a group of female protesters were sexually harassed by security forces, then were arrested and compelled to submit to virginity tests.

These "tests" involved a doctor inspecting the females in the presence of gawking security men. It seems that top military officials were as sexist as any radical Salafi: When some of the women complained, the military's judicial chief accused them of seeking the limelight and defaming the armed forces.

Samira Ibrahim, the only victim brave enough to bring a court case against the military and the participating doctor, has received a stream of telephoned death threats and been fired from her workplace. The doctor was acquitted in court.

Many Egyptian women argue that violence against females is a product of a broader culture that devalues them. Not a single Arab country ranks in the top 100 in the World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap Report, which rates countries on their level of women's political empowerment, along with women's economic participation and opportunity, education, health, and survival. In the 2011 global rankings by region, the Middle East finished last.

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