CAIRO (AP) — Thousands of Egyptian women marched in the streets of Cairo on Tuesday, protesting abuse by soldiers who dragged women by the hair, stomped on them and stripped one half naked on the street while cracking down on anti-military protesters in scenes that shocked many in the conservative society.
The march was a rare protest by women and its numbers — about 10,000 by some estimates — underlined the depth of anger over the images from the fierce crackdown over the past five days on protesters demanding the ruling military step down immediately.
Even before the protest was over, the ruling military council issued an unusual apology for what it called "violations" — a quick turnaround after days of dismissing the significance of the abuse.
The council expressed "deep regret to the great women of Egypt" and reaffirmed "its respect and total appreciation for the women of Egypt and their right to protest, effectively and positively participate in the political life on the road to the democratic transition." It promised it was taking measures to punish those responsible for violations.
Ringed by a protective chain of male protesters, women from different social classes and religious background gathered in Tahrir Square and marched through the streets of Cairo. Many carried the pictures of soldiers attacking women — particularly one of a veiled woman whose clothes were half pulled off, baring her down to her blue bra, by soldiers who beat her and stomped on her chest.
"They say they are here to protect us, but they are stripping us naked," the marchers chanted.
"The girl dragged around is just like my daughter. They do that and then call us thugs," said Um Hossam, a 54-year old woman in traditional black dress and a veil. "I am a free woman and attacking this woman or killing protesters is just like going after one of my own children."
The attacks on the women came in fierce clashes since Friday as troops broke up protests by activists demanding the immediate end to the rule of the military, which took power after the Feb. 11 fall of Hosni Mubarak. The clashes saw military police chasing young men and women through Tahrir Square and nearby streets, beating them with clubs and sticks. The crackdown has killed 14 protesters, mostly from gunshots.
The images of abuse drew the ire of the U.N. rights chief and unusually harsh words from U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. Addressing students at Georgetown University on Monday, Clinton said the events in Egypt in recent days were shocking and accused the Egyptian security forces and extremists of specifically targeting women.
"And now, women are being attacked, stripped, and beaten in the streets," she said. "This systematic degradation of Egyptian women dishonors the revolution, disgraces the state and its uniform, and is not worthy of a great people."