CAIRO — Egyptian women are growing increasingly angry and militant as they deal with one of the unintended consequences of the Arab Spring: an epidemic of sexual assault that law enforcement has failed to contain.
The backlash, which includes self-defense courses for women and even threats of violent retaliation, is fueled by ultraconservative Islamists who suggest that women invite assault by attending anti-government protests where they mix with men.
At marches against sexual harassment in Cairo, women have brandished kitchen knives in the air. Stenciled drawings on building walls depict girls fighting off men with swords. Signs threaten to "cut off the hand" of attackers.
The reaction comes at a particularly heated moment. While the latest wave of demonstrations against President Mohammed Morsi's rule has cooled in recent days, large protests have grown increasingly violent.
A hard-core minority of demonstrators has vowed to take on the government, and police have responded with force. About 70 people have been killed in clashes with security forces since Jan. 25, the second anniversary of the revolt that deposed longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak.
Harassment has long been a problem in this patriarchal society, and attacks against female demonstrators have occurred under Morsi, the military council that ruled before him and Mubarak, who governed the Arab world's most populous country for nearly three decades.
The new element, however, is the increasingly sexual nature of the violence.
Sexual assaults at protests, where women have been groped, stripped and even raped, have risen both in number and intensity in the past year, reaching a peak on the uprising's anniversary.
On that day alone, activists reported two dozen cases of assaults against women at demonstrations in and around Cairo's central Tahrir Square.