CAIRO — Women played a major role in the revolution that brought down Egypt's old government. But nearly two years on, many say they have seen little reward. In terms of physical security, activists say the plight of women is getting worse.
"There have been so many cases of mobbing, of sexual assault and recently also gang rape cases," notes Heba Morayef, the Egypt director of Human Rights Watch. "And the response to that of course has been zero response from the government,” she adds.
Activists say efforts to get the government to help women have failed. Psychologist Farah Shash of the Nadim Center in Cairo works with victims of sexual violence.
"Whenever we discuss women’s issues in the parliament or public debate, they would say it is not a priority, that we don’t believe that women protection and participation is a priority, with what is going on now with the revolution and the political system and so on,” Shash explains.
While women's rights were shaky under the old system, legal experts say the nation's new constitution, passed amid controversy last month, further erodes civil guarantees.
"Many of the lines in the constitution -- they didn't try to say things specifically for women to defend their rights,” complains a young woman who was among many to take to the streets to protest out of concern.
In addition to passing protective laws, rights groups say it will take an overhaul of an education system that portrays women in subservient roles, an economy that leaves many young people jobless and a society that tends to blame the victim for the assault.
Some civic groups are offering women protection at rallies and other vulnerable areas. Psychologist Shash says the trend may help raise awareness, but the thinking behind it is misguided.
"Women cannot move with human shields all the time in the Egyptian street," notes Shash. "We need to know that the system is protecting us. We need to know that men do not see us as sexual objects walking on the street.”
The growing number of cases where “protectors” have attacked suspects is a worrying development, rights advocates say.
"This new license that's been given to private citizens to become involved in violence is an even more dangerous one," Morayef says. "Because you see a weakening of the role of the state and honestly this opens the door to vigilantism moving forward.”
While rights groups view the Islamist government with a wary eye, they argue it is in everyone's interests, including the leaders', to take a greater role and step up security for women.