Cairo: With bright neon vests and hardhats gleaming at dusk, a dozen Egyptian volunteers fanned out through Cairo`s crowded Tahrir Square. Their project: end a surge in sexual assaults on women that activists say has become the darkest stain on the country`s opposition street movement.
Patrolling yesterday, the men and women have joined Tahrir Bodyguard one of several informal groups that have arisen to protect female demonstrators after women were stripped, groped and assaulted in a string of attacks this past year.
Over the past week alone, while mass protests filled city squares around the country, over two dozen new sexual attacks have been reported a wave activists call the worst in years.
Soraya Bahgat said she founded the group using online social media after seeing television footage last November of a mob of men attacking a woman and tearing off her clothes. She had been on the way to a demonstration at Tahrir herself, but instead stayed in, gripped with fear.
"It was sickening. They were dragging her through the street," said the 29-year-old, who works as a human resources manager.
"I couldn`t imagine something so horrific, and something that fundamentally would keep women from exercising their right to assembly like anyone else. No one should be prevented from demonstrating."
Such is the concern that the United Nations on Thursday demanded authorities to act to bring perpetrators to justice, saying it had reports of 25 sexual assaults on women in Tahrir rallies over the past week.
Another Egyptian organization that also patrols the square, Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment/Assault, reported 19 incidents on one day alone. It was January 25th the second anniversary of the start of the uprising that toppled autocrat Hosni Mubarak.
Extraordinary violence has been used in some of the attacks. Human rights campaigner Amnesty International says that some meet the definition of rape, including penetration with fingers and sharp objects.
Frequently, fights with knives and blunt weapons break out when people try to stop the attacks, blurring the lines between those helping and the perpetrators.
"Testimonies from victims and those attempting to save them paint a frightening picture: tens if not hundreds of men surrounding the victims with countless hands tearing-off clothes and veils, unzipping trousers and groping breasts, nipples and backsides," Amnesty`s Egypt researcher Diana Eltahawy wrote in a blog post yesterday.