A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Fighting Back: Marching (and Organizing) Against Sexual Harassment and Assault in Cairo

Today's march from Sayyida Zainab to Tahrir Square was the latest women's protest against sexual harassment and assault in Egypt, and as the photo at left shows, some of them are sending the message that they aren't going to take it anymore. It's part of a visible new determination, visible in recent weeks, to push back against a long endemic scourge that many activists fear has recently taken on a more sinister aspect: they suspect it is systematic and organized.

While we've addressed the issue here on several occasions, and women in Cairo (whether dressed in Western garb or wearing hijab or even niqab) have routinely complained of groping and harassment, since the revolution there are several disturbing new trends, including large groups of young males surrounding, stripping, and assaulting women activists. Many of the activists are convinced that these young men are organized and encouraged by elements (perhaps the government, Islamists, or remnants if the old regime) to deter and dissuade women from appearing at demonstrations. There have been numerous incidents in Tahrir Square during large demonstrations. The women's group Baheya Ya Masr has openly accused the government of involvement, and recent posts by Zeinobia seem to agree. As Ursula Lindsey recently noted, and as Amnesty International has also remarked, these attacks meet the technical definition of rape and are of a far different order than the traditional groping.

This Amnesty International Report notes the recent wave on the January 25 anniversary of the revolution:
The horrific testimonies emerging following protests commemorating the second anniversary of the “25 January Revolution” have brought to light how violent mob sexual attacks against women have happened, but have rarely been brought to public attention.
Operation Anti Sexual Harassment/Assault (OpAntiSH) is an initiative by a number of Egyptian human rights organizations and individuals set up to combat sexual harassment of women in the vicinity of Tahrir Square. It received reports of 19 cases of violent attacks against women on 25 January 2013.
Activists leading the group “I saw Harassment” told Amnesty International that they managed to intervene in a further five cases before violence escalated. Four women were assaulted inside the Sadat Metro Station and one behind the Omar Maqram [Makram] Mosque.
The Amnesty report contains some rather graphic descriptions, as does this article by Egypt Independent News Editor Tom Dale. It's grim and hard to read, but necessary. I won't quote them here but do recommend you read them. Prepare to  be angry. [UPDATE: A new Amnesty Report just today emphasizes how the lack of punishment or law enforcement encourages the violence.]

OpAntiSh, or Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment, (Facebook page here) mentioned in the Amnesty Report and in Dale's article is a recently formed ad hoc group of men and women activists seeking to counter (and to document) such attacks. They succeed such earlier efforts as the HarassMap, an interactive map tracing incidents of harassment, but they are seeking not just national but international attention. They released this harrowing, if somewhat dark, video of rescuers attempting to free a woman from a crowd of attackers. There are already subtitles in English and a variety of European languages (click CC at the left of the buttons on the lower right if captions are not defaulting on), and they are crowdsourcing translations into other languages as well. I'm also printing the narrative below the video. [Video dropped out for a few hours. It's back now.]

“This is not a fight. There is a girl stuck inside this circle. This girl is being sexually assaulted. Right now, there are 3-4 hands inside her pants, and 3-4 inside her blouse. There are about 10 people pulling at her from every direction, and there is one taking off her shoes right now so that his colleague who’s taking off her pants can do so easily. There is a man holding the girl right now and telling her he’s protecting her. The truth is he is also sexually assaulting her, and his hands are in her undergarments right now. There is a man taking off his pants to give them to her. There is another taking off his jacket, and another trying to cover her, and tens trying to stop them with knives. The men trying to help her are telling her to run. The girl is screaming and trying to tell them that those around them are not trying to help them [but] are pulling her back, that she’s scared she’s going to fall, that someone is trying to take off her pants again, but no one can hear her. This girl can’t breathe from the pushing and pulling and is about to faint, but thank God she is not wearing a scarf so they can’t strangle her with it as they did to the second girl. Or the third girl, whom they violated with a knife. Or the fourth and fifth girls that were dragged inside cars but thankfully managed to escape. Or the mother who was violated in front of her children. These girls were gang raped, publicly, for all to see. These girls did not think they would make it out alive. These girls won’t receive any visits from people heralding their heroism. Because no one wants to know about these girls. No one wants to hear [about], read [about] or see these girls. But we will not stay silent. We will not be broken. We will not be ashamed. Tahrir Square and its surrounding areas are the scenes of mob sexual assaults/rapes. Go down and help fight against sexual assaults because we have no intention of staying at home. This Midan is our Midan. This revolution is our revolution. And we will fight this battle until our dying breath.”
Today's demonstration is one small response, but the efforts of OpAntiSH to spread the details both in Egypt and abroad  may draw enough attention to pressure the authorities (at least the police, who by all accounts do nothing) to identify and constrain these mobs. At any rate, the women are at least fighting back.

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