CAIRO - Thousands of women marched through downtown Cairo last night to call for the end of military rule in an extraordinary expression of anger over images of soldiers beating, stripping, and kicking a female demonstrator on the pavement of Tahrir Square.
The event may have been the biggest women’s demonstration in Egypt’s history, and the most significant since a 1919 march led by pioneering Egyptian feminist Huda Shaarawi to protest British rule. About 10,000 women took part in the protest, the Associated Press reported. The scale was stunning, and utterly unexpected in this strictly patriarchal society.
Previous attempts to organize women’s events in Tahrir Square this year have either fizzled or, in at least one case, ended in the physical harassment of the handful of women who did turn out.
“Drag me, strip me, my brothers’ blood will cover me!’’ the demonstrators chanted yesterday. “Where is the field marshal?’’ they demanded, referring to Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the head of the military council holding on to power here. “The girls of Egypt are here.’’
The women’s chants were evidently heard at military headquarters as well. Last night, the ruling military council offered an abrupt apology.
“The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces expresses its utmost sorrow for the great women of Egypt, for the violations that took place during the recent events,’’ the council said in a statement. “It stresses its great appreciation for the women of Egypt and for their right to protest and to actively, positively participate in political life on the path of democratic transition.’’
Although no one in the military has been publicly investigated or charged in connection with any misconduct, the statement asserted that the council had already taken “all the legal actions to hold whoever is responsible accountable.’’
On the fifth of day of clashes between demonstrators and military police, the outpouring of women represented a stark shift for a protest movement that has often seemed to degenerate to crowds of young men trading volleys of rocks with riot police. It comes at a moment when many protesters were beginning to despair that they were losing a propaganda war against the military rulers’ attempts to portray them as vandals and arsonists out to ruin the country.
Just two hours before the women massed, a coalition of liberal and human rights groups unveiled a plan to try to break the state media’s grip on public opinion by holding screenings around the country of video capturing recent military abuses.
Groups of soldiers have been recorded beating prone demonstrators with clubs, firing rifles and handguns as they chased protesters, and more than one version showed soldiers stripping female demonstrators.
In the most famous of those, a half dozen soldiers beating a woman with batons rip away her abaya to reveal her blue bra before one plants his boot on her chest. Fearful of the stigma that would come with her public humiliation, she has declined to step forward publicly, but the images of “blue bra girl’’ have been circulated over the Internet and broadcast by television stations around the world.
In Washington on Monday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton alluded to the episode when she called the recent events in Egypt “shocking.’’
“Women are being beaten and humiliated in the same streets where they risked their lives for the revolution only a few short months ago,’’ Clinton said. “Women are being attacked, stripped, and beaten in the streets,’’ she added, arguing that “this systematic degradation’’ of Egyptian women “disgraces the state and its uniform.’’
When the core of activists called for a march to protest the military’s treatment of women - organizers on the Internet service Twitter used the tag “BlueBra’’ - few could have expected the magnitude of the response.
By 4 in the afternoon, thousands had gathered in Tahrir Square. Instead of the usual core of activists, it was a broad spectrum including housewives demonstrating for the first time and young mothers carrying babies. A majority wore traditional Muslim headscarves and a few had face-covering veils.
As they marched toward the headquarters of the journalists union, two long lines of hundreds of men joined hands on either side of the column of women to protect them from any possible harassment.
The crowd seemed to grow at each step as the women in the march called up to the apartment buildings lining the streets to urge others to join.
“If you don’t leave your house today to confront the militias of Tantawi, you will leave your house tomorrow so they can rape your daughter,’’ one sign read.
“I am here because of our girls who were stripped in the street,’’ said Sohir Mahmoud, 50, a housewife. “Men are not going to cover your flesh so we will,’’ she told a younger woman. “We have to come down and call for our rights; nobody is going to call for our rights for us.’’