The image of a woman being beaten up and stripped by soldiers has generated an unprecedented response, with thousands of women taking to the streets.

Several thousand women demanding the end of military rule marched through downtown Cairo on Tuesday evening in an extraordinary expression of anger over images of soldiers beating, stripping and kicking female demonstrators at Tahrir Square.

“Drag me, strip me, my brothers' blood will cover me!” they chanted. “Where is the Field Marshal?” they demanded of the top military officer Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi. “The girls of Egypt are here.”

Historians called the event the biggest women's demonstration in modern Egyptian history, the most significant since a 1919 march against British colonialism inaugurated women's activism here, and a rarity in the Arab world. It also added a new and unexpected wave of protesters opposing the ruling military council's efforts to retain power and its tactics for suppressing public discontent.

The protest's scale stunned even feminists here. In Egypt's stiffly patriarchal culture, previous attempts to organise women's events at Tahrir Square during this year's protests almost always fizzled or, in one case in March, ended in the physical harassment of a small group of women by a larger crowd of men.

“It was amazing the number of women that came out from all over the place,” said Zeinab Abul-Magd, a historian who has studied women's activism here. “I expected fewer than 300.”

The march abruptly pushed women to the centre of Egyptian political life after they had been left out almost completely. Although women stood at the forefront of the initial revolt that ousted President Hosni Mubarak in February, few had prominent roles in the various revolutionary coalitions formed in the uprising's aftermath. Almost no women have won seats in the early rounds of parliamentary elections. And the continuing demonstrations against military rule have often degenerated into battles in which young men and the security police hurl rocks at each other.

On the fifth day of clashes that have killed at least 14 people, many women in the march said they hoped their demonstration would undercut the military council's efforts to portray demonstrators as little more than hooligans, vandals and arsonists. “This will show those who stay home that we are not thugs,” said Fadwa Khaled, 25, a computer engineer.

The women's demand for a voice in political life appeared to run counter to the recent election victories of conservative Islamists. But the march was hardly dominated by secular liberals. It contained a broad spectrum of Egyptian women, including homemakers demonstrating for the first time and young mothers carrying babies, with a majority in traditional Muslim head scarves and a few in face-covering veils. And their chants mixed calls for women's empowerment with others demanding more “gallantry” from Egyptian men.

Egypt's military rulers came under fire from international human rights groups soon after they took power in February for performing invasive, pseudo-medical “virginity tests” on several women detained after a protest in March. But in Egypt's conservative culture, few of the women subjected to that humiliation have come forward to criticise the generals publicly.

The spark for the march on Tuesday came over the weekend, when hundreds of military police officers in riot gear repeatedly stormed Tahrir Square, indiscriminately beating anyone they could catch.

Videos showed more than one instance in which officers grabbed and stripped female demonstrators, tearing off their Muslim head scarves. And in the most infamous case caught on video, a half-dozen soldiers beat a supine woman with batons and ripped off her abaya to reveal a blue bra. Then one of them kicked her in the chest. Recalling that event at a news conference Tuesday, the woman's friend Hassan Shahin said he had told the soldiers: “I'm a journalist, and this is a girl. Wait, I'll take her away from here.” But, he said, “nobody listened, and one of them jumped on me, and they started beating me with batons.”

No doubt fearful of the stigma that would come with her public humiliation, the victim has declined to step forward publicly, so some activists now refer to her only as “blue bra girl.” The photos of her beating and disrobing, however, have quickly circulated on the Internet and have been broadcast by television stations around the world. In Washington on Monday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called the recent events in Egypt “shocking.”

“Women are being beaten and humiliated in the same streets where they risked their lives for the revolution only a few short months ago,” Ms Clinton said. “Women are being attacked, stripped, and beaten in the streets,” she added, arguing that what she called the systematic degradation of Egyptian women “disgraces the state and its uniform.”

As recently as Tuesday morning, however, many activists here said that because relatively few Egyptians have access to the Internet, read independent newspapers or watch independent satellite television news, the blue bra video was far more widely familiar in the United States than in Egypt.

“Four blocks from here, no one knows about this,” said Aalam Wassef, a blogger and an activist, at a meeting Tuesday morning in which activists announced a plan to set up screens in cities and towns around the country where people could see that video and others that contradict the generals' version of events. (Other scenes include security forces hurling rocks and gasoline bombs, military police officers firing rifles and handguns and protesters bloodied by bullets.)

Some men who had seen the images questioned why the woman had been in the square, suggesting that her husband or father should have kept her at home. Other men have argued that she must have wanted the exposure because she wore fancy lingerie, or they have said she should have worn more clothes under her abaya.

But the woman's ordeal began to receive new attention on Monday when General Adel Emara, a member of the ruling military council, acknowledged what had happened during a news conference on state television. General Emara argued that the scene had been taken out of context and that the broader circumstances would explain what happened.

At the same news conference, a veteran female journalist who reports on the military stood up to ask the General for an apology to Egyptian women. “Or the next revolution will be a women's revolution for real,” the journalist warned. The General tried to interrupt her —he said the military had learned of a new plan to attack the Parliament and then he brushed off her request.

Many Egyptian women said later that they were outraged by his response.

When core activists called for a march Tuesday evening to protest the military's treatment of women organisers on the Internet service Twitter used the tag “(POUND)BlueBra” few could have expected the magnitude of the response.

The crowd seemed to grow at each step as the women in the marched, calling up to the apartment buildings lining the streets to urge others to join them. “Come down, come down,” they shouted in an echo of the protests that led to the ouster of Mubarak.

“If you don't leave your house today to confront the militias of Tantawi, you will leave your house tomorrow so they can rape your daughter,” one sign declared.

“I am here because of our girls who were stripped in the street,” said Sohir Mahmoud, 50, a homemaker who said she was demonstrating for the first time. “Men are not going to cover your flesh so we will,” she told a younger woman. “We have to come down and call for our rights nobody is going to call for our rights for us.”

Along the sidewalks beside the march, some men came out to gawk and stare. Others chanted along with the women, “Freedom, freedom.”

“I came so that girls are not stripped in the streets again,” said Afa Helal, 67, who was also demonstrating for the first time, “and because my daughters are always going to Tahrir. The army is supposed to protect the girls not strip them!” — New York Times News Service

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