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Challenges to Women’s Security in the MENA Region

Author: Isobel Coleman, Senior Fellow and Director of the Civil Society, Markets, and Democracy Initiative; Director of the Women and Foreign Policy Program
March 11, 2013
Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars

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In the chaos of political change in the MENA region today, women face a number of security challenges, from rising lawlessness to backsliding on legal rights. But the rising incidence of politically motivated sexual violence against women is especially worrying, particularly in Egypt where women have been the victims of horrible and systematic mass sexual assaults.

The good news is that women—and men—are saying "enough." Concerned activists have formed new groups like Tahrir Bodyguard, Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment/Assault (OpAntiSH), and At3 Eidak (literally, "cut your hand" and figuratively, "don't you dare") to protect women and,more broadly, shine a spotlight on the harassment of women in general. Many of the activists involved believe that the attacks are organized with the intent to terrorize women and deter them from participating in the political sphere.

The activist groups have helped muster national and international outrage. For the first time, victims of sexual assaults have appeared on television to speak publicly about their horrific experiences; all of the major political groups have been compelled to comment, and U.S. officials have recently reiterated that women's rights must be prioritized in the ongoing transition.

Still, politically motivated violence against women has probably not crested. Members of the Shura Council, Egypt's upper house of parliament, have made statements that women who protest in Tahrir cannot expect the government to protect them, and some have called for separate areas for women to gather at protests. Another preacher said that women who go to Tahrir to protest have no shame and want to be raped. At stake in the battle against sexual violence is not just a woman's personal safety and dignity, but also her right to move in public space and participate in the ongoing political transition.

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