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Nefertiti in a Gas Mask

05/08/2013 10:19 BST | Updated 01/10/2013 10:12 BST

Walking round Cairo just before the current unrest began, I was shown some stylish graffiti. Staring down at me regally from a wall, was Nefertiti. She didn't look terribly impressed. The Pharonic Queen was wearing a gas mask over her mouth and nose, seemingly preparing for combat, while her eyes seemed to say "Over three thousand years since my reign and I have to put up with this nonsense".

I saw more graffiti elsewhere, this time of a glamorous woman in heels and a head scarf exterminating cockroaches swarming towards her with some spray. On closer inspection, I realised the cockroaches were male assailants. Direct, strong, clever - these images represent a social commentary on what many Egyptian women experience regularly, and as Egyptians are known as the great wits of the Arab world, it is not surprising their humour translates into powerful street art.

Many of you will have seen the reports of women assaulted during this second revolution/coup/uprising, and the strange fetishisation by some media of the sexual nature of the crimes. "Sexual assaults and rape in Egypt" the newspapers howled, when more useful would have been an examination of the reasons for the violence and aggression behind these attacks, given that some survivors were beaten, strangled, cut by sharp objects, and manhandled for long periods through crowds of up to 300 people.

As sobering research for Egypt's Super Women, I interviewed activists that were anticipating these assaults and preparing for them by organising volunteers into teams to assist victims at the demonstrations. It was therefore important for me to contact these activists again and find out whether the treatment of women had been better or worse than expected.

The answer is unfortunately much worse. Over a 10 day period in Tahrir Square, Nazra for Feminist Studies recorded 186 instances of sexual assault and rape, and there will of course be those that did not report cases. The aspect I found most unsettling was the fact that on the night that many were celebrating President Morsi's removal from power, the attacks on women surged to 80, equalling the figures of the 3 previous days combined.

"What we saw is an example of men celebrating with women's bodies" says Amal Elmohandes, the Head of the Human Rights Defender Programme at Nazra for Feminist Studies in Cairo. "The celebratory nature of the early demonstrations created a concert-like atmosphere and provided a fertile breeding ground for these sorts of attacks to take place with impunity."

To give you a comparison, if 186 women were sexually assaulted and raped during a festival in London's Trafalgar Square, imagine the sorts of condemnation, high level meetings and high profile prosecutions and trials that would have begun almost immediately in the UK. The pressure to act would be immense.

So how did the Morsi government condemn these attacks and how has the transitional government responded to these assaults on women since assuming power?

The response is, other than the Muslim Brotherhood's clumsy attempts to align the attacks solely with the anti-Morsi protestors, the 'People In Power' have remained silent. Prosecutions are not taking place and there has been no loud, unequivocal denunciation of this behaviour. We all appreciate Egypt is in a state of upheaval but how much time does a public condemnation take? Do Egyptian women as huge participators in their countries struggle for democracy, not deserve this at the very least?

Amal is disgusted but thinks that Egypt's political parties have never paid attention to these sorts of attacks in the past.

"Attacks against women in public spaces is a Pandora's box in Egypt" she says. "People are terrified of opening it or perhaps uninterested in viewing the shameful contents inside."

A video by Human Rights Watch from July 3 shows a young Egyptian man stating that the women themselves are to blame for their sexual harassment. "They push Egyptian men to do this" he says. "From the way they walk, from the way they dress, everything. It's not a good habit, its wrong but they lead us to do this."

Sadly noting the slow evolution of many Egyptian men's views on bodily autonomy, Mariam Kirollos, a founder of the Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment group protecting women in Cairo, thinks radical reform is required.

"When domestic violence is not even illegal here and there is no specific article on sexual violence in the Egyptian Penal Code, swift action must be taken. Our education and security institutions badly need reform, and women's political participation is therefore essential for any of these changes to begin."

With the state continuing to stay silent, one of the most powerful condemnations of sexist societal attitudes so far has come from a 12 year old boy. In an extraordinary interview on Youtube, Ali Ahmed states that the treatment of women in Egypt is outrageous and they should be better represented in government (the transitional government has appointed three women so far to its 34 member cabinet). Those in governance would do very well to heed him, as I doubt Nefertiti would wish to remain in her gas mask for long.