“Women should not mingle with men during protests,” Reda al-Hifnawy, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood’s (MB) Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) recently said. MP Hifnawy was talking during a discussion by the Shura (Consultative) Council’s Human Rights Committee—the Shura Council is the upper house of Egypt’s parliament—on the recent wave of sexual harassment proliferating during mass protests. “How can the Interior Ministry be tasked with protecting a woman who stands among a group of men?”
In the same vein, Adel Afifi, a prominent board member of the Salafi party al-Asala, blamed women for the sexual harassment they are victim of. “A woman who joins protests among thugs and street dwellers should protect herself before asking the Ministry of Interior to offer her protection,” Afifi said, adding that with the current unrest in Egypt police officers are incapable of protecting themselves. “Women bring rape upon themselves through putting themselves in a position which makes them subject to rape.”
Such discussions were condemned by the Egyptian Centre for Women’s Right (ECWR) and, according to the Centre’s head Nihad Abul-Qumsan, called upon the Shura to present an official apology and demanded that those who uttered such statements should be prosecuted, since their words work to promote violence and terrorism.
Amidst the current civil unrest in Egypt, at least 25 women have been sexually assaulted in Tahrir Square. On the day of the second anniversary of the Egyptian 2011 Revolution, 19 cases of sexual assault were reported. In a typical attack, crowds of men surround women and isolate them, then strip them naked and assault or rape them. Due to concerns that publicising such assaults would sully the woman’s reputation or even render her unmarriageable, many cases of rape go unreported. Some victims said it appeared to have been an organised attempt to drive women out of demonstrations and trample the pro-democracy protest movement.
Activists believe much more should be done. They are calling for the ruling FJP party to be held responsible for not taking strict measures to prevent the attacks and the Egyptian police for not offering the necessary protection; they also demand the enforcement of a strict law against sexual harassment in all its forms.
This sexual assault, many people believe, is a planned strategy to destroy the dignity of both men and women. In the prevalent culture where a woman’s virginity is synonymous with her and her family’s ‘honour’, sexual assault against a woman ruins the reputation of even the male members of her family. Many fathers or brothers may prevent their young women from joining demonstrations.
A global protest was held on Tuesday 12 February in front of Egyptian embassies and consulates worldwide against the sexual terrorism that is being practiced against women in Egypt: in London and Athens, Amman and Copenhagen, Brussels, Berlin and Paris, from Oslo to Washington DC, to Melbourne, Australia.
The call was launched by The Uprising of Women in the Arab World group, a community of both men and women who have been advocating human rights, freedom, and the independence of women ever since the beginning of the Arab Spring.
In their statement, they emphasise that they “will not watch in silence the spreading epidemic of sexual terrorism,” and that they want to express their “support, solidarity and admiration for the assaulted who paid the price of the ongoing Egyptian revolution and to the heroic volunteers who are risking their lives for a safe Tahrir.”
On their web page, the Uprising activists accuse Egypt’s current and former governments, as well as the Muslim Brotherhood, of not doing enough to pass legislation punishing acts of violence against women. They also denounce that part of Egyptian society whose culture engages in blaming the victim.
Part of wider epidemic
Unfortunately these horrific incidents that we are currently seeing are part of a wider epidemic of sexual harassment that has plagued the Egyptian society for many years, with Egyptian and foreign women experiencing sexual harassment on the street on a daily basis. Police and other law enforcers have largely ignored this issue of sexual harassment and assaults, often holding the view that the fault of these sexual attacks lies with the women and that the solution is to keep women separated from men if not out of public altogether.
A group of initiatives have been set up to try and deal with the growing sexual violence against women in Cairo, especially in Tahrir Square during demonstrations, such as Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment, a collaboration of several initiatives as well as individual volunteers working against sexual violence in Egypt. There is also Tahrir BodyGuard, a group of people who have trained themselves to deal with the violence as and when it occurs.
The initiatives show an on-going dissatisfaction with the regime and in this case their inadequate responses, if not compliance with, the increase in sexual attacks against women protestors, with demonstrators shouting the now familiar chant we have been hearing for the last two years: “The people want the downfall of the regime”, as well as “Women are the red line”, “Women are the voice of the revolution” and “Women’s voices are getting higher and won’t be quieted”.
Brave young women
Watani met a number of Egyptian young women who were there in Tahrir.
Hind Salem says, “From now on, we will not be silent about any offence against us. The age of silence is gone. We have tired of our parents’ advice about the polite girl who shouldn’t speak to anyone in the street. This state of sexual harassment and rape are a result of not standing up to the moral chaos.”
Another young woman, Marwa Mahmoud, remembers her grandmother’s advice to ignore whatever she hears in the street. “That was when harassment was merely verbal,” she says. We’re way beyond that today.”
Secondary-student Mona Fawzy says the satellite channels have helped by exposing the rape and sexual assault incidents. “The brave young women who did not bury their heads in the sand and the spread of initiatives and centres that help those who defend themselves have contributed to raising awareness of the problem.”
Rena Effendi says that about a year ago she was in a taxi in Cairo. “After setting off the driver switched course, pulled over, and attacked me with a knife,” Ms Effendi says. He asked me to undress, but I got angry and refused. I was sitting in the back seat, and when I tried to reach for the driver’s side door to open it, he pinned me down with his seat and started beating me on the face. At some point I was able to open the cab door and scream numerous times for help. The highway was busy with cars, but nobody stopped, and he kept dragging me inside the car each time I tried to escape. After about 15 minutes of fighting inside the cab and several more attempts to flee, I managed to convince the driver to take my money instead of hurting me further. I consider myself extremely lucky not to have lost consciousness and to escape reasonably unharmed and before anything more gruesome happened. In light of all the recent events in Egypt, I am sharing my story of that terrible night in Cairo in support of Egyptian women and their defiance of sexual violence.
Active in campaign
Injy Ayman Ghozlan, former Project Coordinator for the Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights, is famous for her activism in campaigns against sexual harassment. She is now the co-founder of HarassMap website which collects data about sexual harassment in Egypt. “Support groups are held for the first time,” she says, “ where the participants help and support each other in order to create a state of exchanging problems, stories, and how to deal with the phenomenon of harassment.”
“The centre will provide psychosocial support to girls through backing workshop as a collective session to treat young women who are subjected to violence and harassment,” says Heba Ghoneim, a psychologist at Nazra Centre.
The sessions help women to acquire psychological and social skills. The first session, Ghoneim noted, will be with young women willing to talk about their experiences. And through the second session, negative spirits are aired, while the third and fourth sessions focus on calming down those young girls, and helping them to regain trust in themselves and respect for their bodies.
24 February 2013