In 2011, when protests began in Egypt’s Tahrir Square, Hend Nafea was a college student in Banha, north of Cairo. As she saw the images of young people demanding an end to the three-decade rule of Hosni Mubarak, she knew she had to take part.
“I participated there not only to seek freedom, dignity, social justice and to call for human rights in Egypt, but also for my rights as a woman,” Nafea said in an interview at VOA’s studios in Washington.
Nafea left school and traveled by bus, joining the protests without telling her family. And although the revolution exhilarated her, she soon saw an ugly side of the upheaval.
‘Beaten and stripped’
On December 17, 2011, Nafea was participating in a protest against military rule when security forces attacked her.
“I was dragged, beaten and stripped, and there were around 15 soldiers beating me, sexually harassing me, touching private parts of my body. And they dragged me into the Shura Council building in Tahrir Square,” Nafea said.
Authorities arrested nine other women that day, Nafea told VOA, all of whom were held in a room for many hours, tortured with electric shocks and threatened with rape.
Nafea said the soldiers finally released her to a military hospital after she lost consciousness.
Nafea was handcuffed to a bed, even though her arm was broken. Her wounds were left to bleed, without treatment, for two days.
The abuse of Nafea and other women that day provoked public outrage. Thousands of women marched in the streets, demanding an end to violence against women and military rule.
Today, Nafea is the subject of a documentary, “The Trials of Spring,” which depicts how women influenced the Arab Spring revolutions.
Across the globe, women are playing leading roles in protest movements. In Sudan, 22-year-old Alaa Salah has become a symbol of the revolution after photos of her leading chants from the top of a vehicle were shared around the world.
“We want a better Sudan, a democratic state. One that judges all in accordance with the law, without favoritism. So we’re currently in the square until our demands are met,” Salah told Reuters.
And in Algeria, women have played a key role in protests that brought down longtime ruler Abdelaziz Bouteflika. A photo of an Algerian ballerina defiantly balancing on her toes in front of a flag has gone viral.
Protests by women, particularly in Islamic societies, seem to be an especially powerful symbol, and security forces have reacted harshly, often using sexual violence as a tactic of suppression.
“They use gender-based violence to crush women and push women away from protests and from participating in the public space,” Nafea said. “They were blaming us, the women, for going to Tahrir Square instead of blaming the people who did this to us,” Nafea said.
‘We are fighters’
Despite the pain she has endured, Nafea says the sacrifice was worth it. She was forced to flee Egypt to Lebanon, and now lives in the U.S. But her efforts have brought awareness to systemic abuses in her home country.
The Egyptian government tried and convicted her in absentia, and sentenced her to 25 years in prison for her role in the protests.
“Many may think that we are only victims, we are victims of our own men, society and government, and everyone around us. Yes, we are facing a lot of human rights violations, we are facing a lot of gender-based violence and discrimination, but we are fighters,” Nafea said.
“Even when the repression is increasing in Egypt, Egyptian women are still fighting back.”