(MENAFN - Youm7) Two female journalists sexually assaulted on Thursday during ongoing demonstrations in Cairo's Tahrir Square sparked renewed concerns about women on Egypt's frontlines.
Media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) even called to not send female reporters to Tahrir Square, although it later toned down its statement after angry backlash from reporters across the globe.
"It is more dangerous for a woman than a man to cover the demonstrations in Tahrir Square. That is the reality and the media must face it," said the new statement by RSF, issued today.
At least 17 journalists were injured in six days of clashes; 41 people have died and more than 3,000 injured.
Early Thursday morning, award-winning Egyptian-American journalist Mona el-Tahawy was arrested, beaten and sexually assaulted by Central Security Forces, Egypt's riot police.
El-Tahawy had been on the frontlines in Mohamed Mahmoud Street, which connects Tahrir Square to the Ministry of Interior, where clashes between Egyptian demonstrators continued from Saturday morning through Thursday.
"5 or 6 surrounded me, groped and prodded my breasts, grabbed my genital area and I lost count how many hands tried to get into my trousers," el-Tahawy wrote on her Twitter page shortly after being released.
She also suffered a broken hand and arm.
Later that day, French journalist Caroline Sinz was separated from her cameraman in the same area. She told the AFP that a group of "youngsters and adults" beat her and molested her in a way that "would be considered rape."
Some have suggested that journalists are being specifically targeted, but not all find merit in the theory.
Engy Ghozlan is one of the founders of HarassMap, an organization dedicated to fighting harassment on the streets of Egypt. Ghozlan disagrees that the harassment is targeted.
"Some say they are plainclothes police [harassing women] to push people out of the square, but I don't think that's likely," Ghozlan told Youm7.
"The problem is there are so many kinds of harassment," she said. "CSF forces systematically harass female activists like Mona el-Tahawy and others as a form of punishment or deterrence."
Political activist and popular media personality Gameela Ismail believes recent violence against both women and journalists is targeted.
"I think what's happening can be viewed in the context of a battle for repositioning," Ismail told Youm7. She said members of the formerly ruling regime and now-dissolved National Democratic Party are repositioning themselves to "cripple" the January 25 Revolution that toppled them from power.
"They want to turn Tahrir off and they think that harassing the girls could be a button to limit the presence of women in Tahrir," Ismail said.
Testimonies from demonstrators in Tahrir Square today seem to support Ismail's view.
"Harassment today is almost organized," posted activist 'Sarahngb' on her Twitter page. "I was harassed from the back and front simultaneously, surrounded by guys. When I raised my voice at them they laughed and pushed me around."
It's a striking contrast to demonstrations during the beginning of Egypt's January uprising, when many women said the mood in Tahrir Square proved to them that a harassment-free Egypt was possible.
According to today's statement by RSF, this is "the first time that there have been repeated sexual assaults against women reporters in the same place." The statement added that "women journalists going to Tahrir Square should be aware of this situation," but refrained from recommending they not go at all.
The organization's initial statement read, ""For the time being [media should] stop sending female journalists to cover the situation in Egypt. It is unfortunate that we have come to this but, given the violence of these assaults, there is no other solution."
The statement was angrily received by reporters across the globe.
"If women stop reporting because they are worried about sexual violence, we'll go back 100 years," Naila Hamdy, who teaches journalism at the American University in Cairo, told Youm7 on Friday.
"We have fought for decades as female journalists to get our editors to treat us equally. I do not understand how an organization devoted to press freedom can recommend discrimination like this," UK Channel 4 editor Lindsey Hilsum wrote to RSF.
Her statement was quoted in the Guardian today.
Very few female journalists report sexual harassment, largely because they fear the repercussion to their careers.
Many female journalists don't "want to encourage a situation in which male editors assigning stories might be reluctant to send a woman out in field," Rodney Pinder, director of the International News Safety Institute, told the Committee to Protect Journalists earlier this year.
Of 52 women who spoke to CPJ about sexual harassment and assault in the wake of the brutal attack on CBS correspondent Lara Logan in Tahrir Square on February 11, 2011 (the night three-decade president Hosni Mubarak stepped down), the vast majority did so anonymously.
Ghozlan is encouraging women in Egypt to report harassment. "We strongly encourage anyone who has been harassed in any way by anyone to come forward and speak out through HarassMap and help us find a solution," she told Youm7.
Many female journalists see the risks as part of the line of duty, something they must deal with.
"The women I know, like Lara, are passionate about journalism and deeply committed to telling people's stories. Most of us would choose no other life," journalist Jane Arraf told National Public Radio on February 18.
Mona el-Tahawy is in many ways an exception to the rule, but is also a strong example of both a determined Egyptian woman and a dogged female journalist. After her brutal treatment at the hands of CSF yesterday, el-Tahawy was back in Tahrir Square today.
Ismail as well is no stranger to being a strong woman in what is often considered a man's world. "We always have to expect the worst and step past whatever confronts us," she said. "We have to continue going [to Tahrir], we have to wear layers as we used to in 2004 and 2005 and 2006 at demonstrations.
"I think that, unfortunately, we have to go through this, to uncover it and scandalize it and put an end to it, finally."