No one in Egypt can argue with the deplorable fact that sexual harassment has reached the alarming proportions of a public phenomenon. ‘Why’ is a question that has wearied the
experts, and ‘What can be done to stop it in its tracks’ evades any easy answer. Is harassment a reaction to the sexual deprivation imposed by rising religious conservatism; given that the crime would in all probability go unpunished under the rampant security downfall and notorious behavioural decline? Is it a practice intended to create a state of insecurity and panic among women—a means adopted by Islamists to force women back to the shelter of their homes and away from the political scene? Or is it—plain and simple—a rude expression of utter rejection of women?
Structured and systematised
Most painful to women is the fact that they had been key partners in the 25 January 2011 Revolution. They had vehemently called for a State that would honour freedom, democracy, and social justice; and that would give them their rights. What followed after the revolution was a severe setback, a very painful one. Women were sidelined, denied not only the rights they aspired for but also many of the rights they used to enjoy. They were intimidated, threatened, and made to understand that the public sphere was not for them to occupy; their God-given role was in the home or, at best, an instrument to be exploited by their menfolk as they saw fit. ‘Harassment’ thus summed it all up.
The date 25 January 2013 marked the second anniversary of the Egyptian Revolution, and
was honoured by massive demonstrations against the current [Islamist] ruling regime. More than 20 complaints of sexual harassment were made by female demonstrators to the Cairo police that day. The harassment was savage, to the point that aggressors used knives and sharp tools to assault the women, several of whom suffered consequent permanent disabilities. The volunteers workers of the Force Against Harassment and Sexual Assault (FAHSA) movement—a civic movement that combats harassment—were also assaulted.
The question that thus begs an answer is whether the harassment on the Egyptian street is a structured, systematised practice, or is it some random exercise?
Watani decided to take it to the experts.
“The human race has a history of exploiting female bodies,” Magda Adly, head of al-Nadim Centre to Rehabilitate Victims of Violence told Watani. “Some 250,000 women were raped during WWII. Rape of women is exploited to mortify nations.” In 2002, she explained, a United Nations document termed rape as a war crime.
In Egypt, Dr Adly deplores, harassment has escalated from mere verbal harassment or obscenities; or even a quick, random touch; into systematic outright sexual assault—and rape—of women. This is an obvious indication, she said, that the ruling regime backs it. Dr Adly reminds that women revolutionists went out in their full force to Tahrir Square throughout the all 18-day uprising and joined in the cry for bread, freedom and social justice; during which period not a single case of rape occurred. But things took a different turn after the Revolution went into Islamists hands, she says.
No Islamist was reported to have raped any woman during demonstrations, inside or outside Tahrir, Dr Adly says. The victims said they were attacked by well-groomed, middle class young men. So how can this indict Islamists? Watani asked. “Every regime has special groups or forces responsible for carrying out ‘dirty’ operations, while the regime distances itself from such practices,” she explained. “Remember how the US sent the Guantanamo to other countries—Egypt included—that had no qualms about torturing prisoners, in order to extract confessions? The fact that sexual assault has become so rampant against anti-Islamist women demonstrators in Egypt, and that no official or Islamist figure has bothered to denounce it, says it all.”
No police to the rescue
Among the recent notorious sexual assault incidents has been the one publicised by the singer/activist Azza Balbaa. “On 25 January, a group of us women revolutionists gathered in the early evening hours in Talaat Harb Square in Downtown Cairo to join a group of al-Azhar clerics, and together merge with the multitude of protestors marching on Tahrir. I noticed a large number of young men idling by, not participating in the march. All of a sudden this group started to run around us in an apparently random manner, and finally effectively came between us and the Azhari clerics. They encircled us; we were some 30 women, and they told us that they were there to protect us. Once we reached Tahrir those men started assaulting us from every side. I found myself surrounded by 10 men who kept on grabbing me, until two men whom I don##t know came to my rescue.”
A young female 17-year-old, a volunteer with FAHSA, has another story to tell of that infamous day. FAHSA had planned for a short meeting on 25 January inside a Downtown Cairo bookshop, in order to draw their plan of action during the demonstrations. “As I headed towards the bookshop with one of my colleagues, we spotted a number of youth gathering outside the building. They started beating us and shouting rude obscenities at us, but we ran to what we had imagined to be the safety of the bookshop. In the space of a few minutes they broke inside, smashing the door and contents. When my brother—also a member in FAHSA—and four of his friends tried to protect the 10 young women who were there, he was stabbed with a knife. The fight that ensued was live terror until the locals saved us from the hands of our attackers; the police whom we had called for rescue never came.
“A silent blessing”
The Shuft Taharrush (I spotted harassment) movement, a youth movement that monitors cases of harassment, issued a statement on the 25 January 2013 rape and harassment in Tahrir.
“Sexual harassment and assault on females has become methodical,” the statement declared. “It is not random, neither is it a result of stampede or any other relevant pretext.
“A number of attempts have targeted male and female activists who supported anti-harassment campaigns in Tahrir Square. Many of the victims suffered injuries.
“We stress that all assault of women comprises a not-so-subtle message that aims at terrorising Egyptian women, breaking their will, and driving them off the political and social scene.
“We hold all factions of political Islam responsible for the harassment and sexual violence against women in particular and the violence against peaceful demonstrators in general, especially now that they have become the decision makers in this country. Even if Islamists are not the direct instigators behind today’s violence, their silence grants a silent blessing to the assault of women on Egypt’s streets.”
Fadya Abu-Shehba, Professor of Criminal Law with the National Centre for Social and Criminological Research, explained to Watani that assault crimes against females comprise harassment, indecent assault, and rape. The problem is that the community deals with the victim and the attacker on equal footing, Dr Shehba says. While the attacker is socially condemned, the victim is disgraced and ostracised as part of a ‘shame’ incident. This means that many victims refrain from filing complaints regarding such cases, for fear of the social stigma, she says. One serial rapist, she says, confessed to having committed countless rapes, till one victim finally reported him and he was caught. “Rapists get away with their crimes; in fact they go on repeating them with other victims, because they know their victims will never work up the courage to report the crime,” Dr Shehba says. “And why shouldn’t they, as long as their crimes go undetected and unpunished?”
Yet it should not be overlooked, she said that there is a strong connection between the assault of females and the many social ills of poverty, unemployment, and spiralling prices. This led to a deplorable change in the methodology of harassment. Group rather than individual harassment is now rampant, and white weapons and fierce animals are used to terrorise victims into submission. The post-Revolution security laxness serves to make such crimes easy, Dr Shehba says.
“This trend has risen with the rise of the Islamists,” she said, “and works to break the pride of Egyptian women. Yet this will reflect very negatively on the entire community: it is only upon the shoulder of sound, proud women that a fine new generation sees light.”
Can nothing be done to rescue Egyptian women?
“This is a very tricky process,” Dr Shehba says, “since it involves a plethora of social ills and misconceptions. And it does not make matters easier that, since the Revolution, Egypt has been lacking effective security.”
The State, however, according to Dr Shehba, may work to speed up the normally tardy legal procedure that should convict rapists or sexual offenders. Penalties for sexual crimes should be stiffened, and the community and State should work to compensate and help victims of rape, she said. The State, she said, should protect children and those with mental disabilities from harassment, especially that these groups are highly vulnerable and could be easy prey to sexual offenders.
UN Women calls to take a firm stand against all forms of violence against women in Egypt
“In the days following the second anniversary of the Egyptian Revolution, I note with great concern the escalation of violence and alarming reports of rising violence against women in public spaces.
Two years ago, the world witnessed Egyptian women and men in Tahrir square and across Egypt calling for change and exercising their political and civil rights to public assembly and expression. As a vibrant force in civil society, women continue to press for their rights, equal participation in decision-making, and the upholding of the principles of the Revolution by the highest levels of leadership in Egypt.
UN Women is deeply disturbed by the gravity of recent attacks against women, including the reports of sexual assault, many of which occurred in the same Tahrir Square in which women rallied to contribute to a better future for their country.
UN Women calls upon the government and people of Egypt to take a firm stand against all forms of violence against women and girls, and to promote human rights for all, including the rights of women to live free of violence and discrimination and to participate fully in social, economic and political life. This necessitates commitment at the highest level of leadership in Egypt to put in place the legislation and mechanisms that ensure the protection of women and their ability to exercise their rights.”
10 February 2013