You would more likely expect a chat on metal knickers and spiked bras to be about Lady Gaga or a fashion shoot for Vogue than a discussion on ideas for protest outfits. But unfortunately, you would be wrong. I learnt this first-hand from a group of twenty-something women in Cairo last week, as we chatted about what they will wear for protection to the mass protests taking place across Egypt on Sunday, 30 June.
They were actually half joking about measures to make themselves seem no longer human to the touch, to frighten away the wandering hands of men seeking to invade female clothing and assault girls at protests. As discontent grows against Mohammed Morsi, the winner of Egypt's first free Presidential elections held a year ago, many Egyptian women will be attending these protests calling for his resignation. President Morsi has sought to consolidate his power and abuse the rights for which the revolution was fought, and these women want their voices heard.
On January 25 this year, 19 cases of rape and sexual assault were documented during a protest in Tahrir Square alone. Packs of men sought to separate women from groups, before encircling them. The women were then sexually assaulted, their clothes ripped off. Harrowing testimonies detail how numerous fingers and sometimes sharp objects were forced into their genitalia, and the medical and psychological care they required afterwards. This is what makes Egypt's women so extraordinarily brave and in need of our attention. As we ask ourselves whether we would go to a protest knowing these details, many Egyptian women, aware of the risks they face, are heading to protests on Sunday anyway. This courage gives an indication of just how much women's continued participation in Egypt's political life matters, because if Egypt's women stay home, the force behind these protests is greatly reduced. The symbolism of them staying away might also embolden the shaping of Egypt's future in an increasingly religiously conservative vein, and without essential female input.
To combat the sexual violence and harassment faced by women at protests, male and female volunteers have come together to form groups like the Tahrir Bodyguards and Operation Anti Sexual Harassment (OPANTISH). These groups will be out in full force this weekend to protect and assist women dealing with any sexual harassment.
"On my way to a protest last November, I realised that no woman should feel the fear I suddenly felt," says Founder of the Tahrir Bodyguards, Soraya Bahgat. "And so I began the group with my own savings. At the next protests, both men and women went in wearing construction helmets and sloganed t-shirts to rescue girls that were in trouble."
To counteract attacks, women are now sharing tips on how to best protect themselves, from home-made recipes for mace to the wearing of many layers of clothing. Women's rights organisation, Nazra for Feminist Studies, based in Cairo, has also been facilitating workshops on survival skills for female activists and will be running a hotline for victims of assault during the protests. Other protection groups have also formed, like OPANTISH which has over 200 volunteers, and has organised safe houses near the three major protest sites in Cairo on Sunday. They will have doctors and psychologists on hand to help victims of assault.
Notwithstanding all these efforts, the bigger question seems to be what these assaults targeting women are a symptom of. Some see it as yet another extension of years of men staring and hissing at women on Egyptian streets, and of the sexual harassment of women in institutions, companies and other work places. Others say it's a tool used by religiously disapproving elements of society to torment women for their presence in public.
But protestors testify that girls who slept in Tahrir Square at the beginning of the revolution were accorded respect as revolutionaries, whereas now those attending are seen by some as 'bad' and asking for trouble. So what has changed?
While a member of the Human Rights Council for Egypt's Senate has shamefully suggested that female protestors attacked have brought rape upon themselves, Dalia Abdel Hamid of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights and a volunteer with OPANTISH sees a generalisation of violence as being to blame. "In addition to the breakdown in law and order since the revolution, the people remember the virginity testing on female protesters in Tahrir in 2011 and the threats to abuse and rape female protestors by military officers. It's really about a state that perpetuates violence and a society that then lacks the enforcement of good laws to protect women."
So, as Egyptians prepare to head to the protests this Sunday, it seems that Egypt's women are fighting two interlinked battles - one against a society that rubs up against their bodies, and the other against the governance that creates a culture of impunity for those doing the rubbing.
Soraya Bahgat thinks Egypt's women are up to the challenge. "Women in Egypt are a force to be reckoned with. Remember that Egypt's women were a force that brought down the Mubarak regime. They are an essential voice for change."