Egypt’s other, unfinished revolution: the fight for women’s rights

By Simon Allison 30 January 2013

Tahrir Square is a dangerous place to be a woman. Not just because it’s the centre of Egypt’s thriving violent-protest-violent-response industry, which presents its own unique hazards, but also because, in the unruly crowds, women are singled out for special treatment from men who know they can (and do) get away with sexual abuse and assault. By SIMON ALLISON.

According to local women’s rights campaigners, at least 25 women were sexually assaulted in Egypt’s most recent bout of unrest last week. “In a typical attack, crowds of men quickly surround isolated women, groping them and attempting to remove their clothes. Some women have been stripped naked and one was raped, campaigners said,” wrote the Guardian.

Other accounts are more graphic, and they’re worth quoting at length. “A woman was sexually assaulted with a bladed weapon on Friday night, leaving cuts on her genitals, in central Cairo, in the midst of what was purportedly a revolutionary demonstration,” said the Egypt Independent. “She was one among at least 19 women sexually assaulted in and around Tahrir Square on Friday night, according to accounts collated by Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment, an activist group. Several women were stripped, and raped, publicly, as men pushed their fingers inside them. There were other attacks involving bladed weapons. Six women required medical attention. No doubt there were more assaults, uncounted.”

For a glimpse of what it’s actually like, read this first-person testimony from a woman who has experienced the lust of the mob in Tahrir Square. “I did not understand anything at that moment… I did not comprehend what is happening… who are those people? All that I knew was that there were hundreds of hands stripping me of my clothes and brutally violating my body. There is no way out, for everyone is saying that they are protecting and saving me, but all I felt from the circles close to me, sticking to my body, was the finger-rape of my body, from the front and back; someone was even trying to kiss me…I was completely naked, pushed by the mass surrounding me to an alley close to Hardee’s restaurant…I am in the middle of this tightly knit circle. Every time I tried to scream, to defend myself, to call on a savior, they increased their violence and rape.”

And this description, she adds, “is far less brutal than the reality of what happened.”

In the heaving crowds, it is hard – often impossible – to identify who are the real culprits. Not that there’s much in the way of justice anyway – Human Rights Watch reports that Egypt’s security forces are just as bad, with police and military implicated in a number of sexual assaults against journalists and activists in their care.

So, in typical fashion, Egyptians have taken the matter into their own hands. At least two informal vigilante organisations have been set up in and around Tahrir Square with the express purpose of protecting and rescuing women from difficult situations. Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment is one. Last Friday night, they had a team of 30 people in the square who went round attempting to rescue women in danger and bring them to their makeshift clinic, where another team of volunteers provided legal, medical and emotional support.

Another is Tahrir Bodyguard, which performs much the same function. They respond to distress calls made on a special hotline, as well as to appeals on twitter (@TahrirBodyguard). It’s a start, but it’s nowhere near enough.

In fact, it’s not even the tip of the iceberg. Egypt has long had a problem with women’s rights, or the near complete lack thereof. Under Hosni Mubarak, women experienced severe oppression and sexual harassment; the subjugation of women was one way in which the state maintained its grip on the population. The revolution was supposed to change all this, at least as far as many of the female revolutionaries were concerned. It hasn’t. In fact, democratic elections put a Muslim Brotherhood-aligned party and president in power, neither of whom have much enthusiasm for toppling Egypt’s patriarchal social structure.

It’s also important to note that the sexual violence is not contained within Tahrir Square; Tahrir, in fact, is just the country in microcosm, and similar incidents have been reported (and, all too often, left unreported) in every province.

So what needs to change? “Everything,” said Amira Mikhail, an Egyptian activist and academic speaking to the Daily Maverick. “Society needs to change, the mentality of women and men, policies need to be revolutionized, assault in homes and on the streets needs to be criminalized, women need to be respected and protected and not made to bear the fault, the police and military need to protect them rather than harassing or violating them, and violence and assault, and even verbal harassment, needs to be dealt with harshly and swiftly. This can be done through laws, re-education of police and military forces, in schools, TV ads, news and media. However, this requires an educated, active, and motivated society, citizens, and government. These we do not have.”

It’s a long, imposing list. Egypt, in other words, needs another revolution: a sexual revolution.

And there are signs that this is happening. The amount of media attention and concern around sexual violence in Tahrir is unprecedented in Egyptian history. For once, real attention is being paid to the issue, even if there’s not much that can be done about it. And, increasingly, women are sharing their experiences in public forums, and demanding change; they are no longer seen as passive victims of abuse.

There’s a long, long way to go, however; and until then, Tahrir Square will remain a dangerous place to be a woman. DM

Read more:

  • “Please God. Please make it stop” A foreign journalist’s account of sexual assault in Tahrir Square.
  • The gendered body public: Egypt, sexual violence and revolution on Jadaliyya
  • Tahrir Square sexual assaults reported during anniversary clashes on the Guardian
  • Sexual assault in Tahrir: what it means, and how to stop it on Egypt Independent

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