By Emma Hodson
“Suddenly, I was in the middle, surrounded by hundreds of men in a circle that was getting smaller and smaller around me. They were cramped around me in such a tight manner that I was starting to suffocate. I’m very claustrophobic so I was breathing heavily. At the same time, they were touching and groping me everywhere and there were so many hands under my shirt and inside my pants.”
So reads the anonymous testimonial of a girl reporting her sexual assault in Tahrir Square on January 25, 2013. Her story parallels the stories of many other Egyptian women, as well as foreigners, who have participated in the continuing political unrest in Egypt since former President Hosni Mubarak was ousted on January 25 two years ago. At the time, there was much talk of a new Egypt, of revolution, and the possibilities uncovered by the “Arab Spring.” Two years later, with the newly elected leadership of President Mohamed Morsi, Egypt remains in turmoil, and the protests on the 25th of January of this year produced a reported 25 instances of sexual assault towards female protesters.
Though Tahrir Square at the time of the revolution was often portrayed as safe-zone where sex and class were transcended by united goals of freedom, sexual harassment and assault are not new issues in Egypt, where levels of sexual harassment are considered to be quite high. Surveys show that 60 percent of Egyptian men have reported sexually harassing a woman at least once, and that 80 percent of Egyptian women have reported being harassed. However, the increase in sexual harassment and assault coupled with the continued struggle against the Egyptian government and protests in Tahrir Square, as well as the nature of these assaults, do not seem to be in line with every day harassment reports. The 25 cases of sexual assault come only months after the Eid al-Adha religious holiday, where there were over 1000 complaints of sexual harassment in Egypt in a mere four day period.
The Tahrir attacks themselves are extraordinarily violent and are usually committed by mobs, sometimes consisting of hundreds of men, who surround women, rip their clothes off, beat them, and sexually violate them. Some women are dragged towards the outskirts of the protests and taken into side streets and alleyways, where abuse can continue out of sight from the larger public. One particularly disturbing January 25 case reports the rape of a nineteen-year-old girl with a blade. Testimonials on anti-harassment organization websites report horrifying and graphically detailed recounts of assault, rape, and violence. Each of them begin in the same way, with hundreds of men swarming around them, separating the women from their group, and beginning a disgustingly violent assault that some victims have described as suspiciously task-divided, with certain men delegated to commit particular functions in the group rape.
Because of the nature of such mob attacks, many presume foul play, and suspect a collaborated effort to remove women’s presence from Tahrir Square by sexually intimidating women from participating in protests. They say that sexual assault is a political tactic that has been present in Egypt even pre-dating the revolution, and point to the fact that symbolic Tahrir Square is the main target of mob assault, though protests are held in many other locations throughout Cairo. Engy Ghozlan, founder of anti-harassment organization Harassmap, feels that the attacks must be organized due to their repeated and gruesome nature.
Internationally, the United States as well as the United Nations have criticized the Egyptian government for not acting to prioritize women’s safety, criticizing the lack of arrests and accountability on the part of the attackers. Indeed, the Egyptian government has failed to act, and the numbers of these horrific incidents increase with each round of protests. International headlines have recently reported on the protests in Egypt in response to the high level of sexual assaults, with large numbers of women calling out for action to violence against women. Monitoring and fighting sexual violence has thus fallen into the hands of Egyptian citizens, who have taken action using a number of attacks to quell sexual attacks against women.
Some groups have taken defensive measures. Groups of young men who oppose sexual violence towards women have taken such matters into their own hands, forming brigades that target men who they see committing acts of sexual harassment or violence against women. The movement is called “Estargel!” or “Be a Man,” and their main tactics include spray-painting perpetrators of sexual harassment, often spraying the word “harasser” on them, or spraying them in the face. The spray paint is meant to humiliate molesters and dissuade them from practicing lewd behavior, but the counter-attacks often escalate, leading to physical brawls between the two groups of men. This vigilante movement has caused controversy, with some worrying that it indicates the growing lawlessness of Egyptian society. However, considering the lack of police action and punishment of men who commit such acts against women, the “Be A Man” groups have invented their own consequences for this sort of behavior. Interestingly enough, much like the original protests that turned into the revolution of two years ago, many of the organizations rely heavily on social media in their efforts to combat sexual harassment and assault.
Ghozlan’s organization, Harassmap, hopes to change perspectives on sexual harassment by creating a virtual map documenting women’s experiences with sexual harassment in Egypt. Victims of harassment or assault text in their experience to Harassmap, which then places the attack on a map of Egypt, divided into harassment categories such as touching, catcalls, stalking, and rape/sexual assault. Co-founder Rebecca Chiao describes the map as a first step, saying that areas with heavy concentrations of reported harassment are to be reached out to, with community projects geared toward decreasing these sorts of incidents.
With the escalation of sexual violence, Harassmap has begun working in conjunction with other anti-harassment organizations such as Tahrir Bodyguard and Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment/Assault (OPAntiSH) to document attacks and act as a sexual harassment hotline. Both organizations formed following the protests in November, and are volunteer-powered groups that attempt to rescue women who are being actively attacked in Tahrir protests. Most of these efforts are conducted over Twitter, where resources for victims of attacks, testimonials, and locations of rescue volunteers are communicated. Women are also encouraged to tweet Tahrir Bodyguards if they feel unsafe during any time during the protests. The Tahrir Bodyguard team dresses in bright vests in helmets, hoping to distinguish themselves from regular protesters. OPAntiSH works similarly, sending in groups to rescue women who have reported an attack, as well as providing outreach to sexual assault victims, including medical, legal, and psychological resources. The groups have also begun constructing watch-towers, along with night guards, who survey the protests from elevated platforms. Tahrir Bodyguards also conducts free self-defense classes for women who fear harassment, assault, and rape in Tahrir Square. These classes are designed to help what they call “systematic political suppression against women.” During the January 25 protests, OpAntiSH was able to respond to fifteen out of nineteen calls they received asking for help from sexual assault, and Tahrir Bodyguards were able to respond to 9.
The resistance of these Egyptian groups against sexual harassment and assault is admirable, but the issue is far from resolved, and the Egyptian government and police have yet to take action to curb these sorts of attacks. The rise of sexual harassment and assault comes at a time where there is heightened global awareness of violence against women, with the Egyptian anti-harassment protests coinciding with planned protests such as One Billion Rising. The idea that such violent mob attacks towards women might be organized raises many questions about the future role of women in Egypt and the motives behind keeping women out of the political opposition. It seems, however, that despite these attempts at intimidation, Egyptians and Egyptian women are determined to exercise their right to protest, whether it be against the current administration, or against the sexual violence that has become more and more prominent since the revolution two years ago.
Photo by Gigi Ibrahim