Violence against women demonstrators in Egypt erupted again on Tuesday when a frenzied mob of 200 men sexually assaulted a female protester in Tahrir Square. Then, during a rally on Friday to protest the incident, about 50 women and their male allies were themselves brutalized and chased away by another mob.
Journalist Ghazala Irshad, who was on the scene Friday, says that just as the small anti-harassment protest was gathering steam, the atmosphere shifted. “A few guys were like, ‘Why are you talking about this, there are more important issues to talk about?’ [Then] some guys started saying the women protesting were whores.”
Next, a phalanx of outside men overwhelmed the protective circle of male allies and cornered and groped the women. Rally organizer Sally Zohney says, “[The violence] started with individual cases of assaults against women in the march [and] then turned into beating and chasing everyone involved. Even men were badly beaten and attacked. It was very brutal.”
Participants were forced to flee for their safety.
Sadly, the violent scene is just the latest of many. Since the military took power last February, countless women–including journalists Lara Logan, Mona Eltahawy and Caroline Sinz, Egyptian actor Sherihan and the “woman in the blue bra“–have been groped and sexually assaulted by men in Tahrir Square. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of other women have experienced verbal sexual harassment in a place that is supposed to symbolize freedom.
The lack of safety for women in the square symbolizes, instead, just how little women have benefited from the revolution they helped create. While pre-revolutionary Egypt was notorious for street harassment–a 2008 study by the Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights (ECWR) found that over 80 percent of Egyptian women had experienced it–the 18-day uprising in January and February 2011 was an unprecedented moment in which women could move freely in public space. Women seized the chance to become key players in the protests. “In 3 weeks of revolution we experienced no sexual harassment by men,” one woman told the Israeli paper Haaretz. “What civilization emerged! What culture!”
But that swiftly changed. Marchers in an International International Women’s Day 2011 demonstration in Tahrir Square were violently attacked. Months of assaults on women protesters followed. Some of the perpetrators have worn civilian clothes; others have been uniformed military police. During the violent government crackdown on pro-democracy protests this fall, which claimed more than 80 lives, over 100 women report being subjected to invasive “virginity tests” by the military.
Zohney believes that the attacks are systematic and fueled by unknown organized groups–whether by the military regime or others, she isn’t certain. She sees them as an attempt to discourage protests by intimidating revolutionaries and painting them in a bad light. Many of her friends have been attacked. Yet, she says, no serious security measures have been taken to stop the assaults. As a result, many women have avoided Tahrir Square, losing the opportunity to be full participants in the political process.
On the other hand, some women have spoken out against the violence. Logan, Eltahawy and others told their stories to the media. Women regularly share their harassment stories online. But, unfortunately, as on Friday, they, too, experience backlash and harassment.
If broad attempts to curb harassment in Egypt succeed, Tahrir Square may become safer for women protesters. Rebecca Ciao, a co-founder of Egyptian safe-streets organization HarassMap, says her group plans to continue conducting community outreach, spotlighting stories of harassment and allowing people to easily report incidents on an online map. Groups such as HarassMap, ECWR and the United Nations’ Safe Cities Programme have long spearheaded anti-harassment actions such as online story sharing, community safety audits, meetings, rallies, radio ads and, last month, a human chain against street harassment.
The attacks on women are also sparking anger among regular citizens. The “woman in the blue bra” became a national martyr, drawing thousands to march in solidarity in December.
No matter how many attacks they face, these brave women and men plan to speak out. Zohney and others are planning a multipronged response to Friday’s attacks that will include a larger, more organized march, as well as online testimonials by Friday’s victims and calls for more security in Tahrir Square. Activist Leil Zahra Mortada wrote in a Facebook post accompanying a photo album from the Friday march:
No matter how deep the wounds are, no matter how many times we get attacked or will be attacked, this will not stop nor silence us. More actions are planned, more noise will be made, and more proactive steps will be taken. We will see the end of sexual harassment and assault, both state-organized and individual! We will take down patriarchy, sexism and every form of violence based on gender or sexuality!
Brava. It is clear Egypt’s revolution will be incomplete until women win the streets.
For an update on the status of women in the “New Egypt,” including an exclusive interview with Mona Eltahawy, get the new issue of Ms. Pick it up on newsstands June 26, or join now to have it delivered to your door.
Photo courtesy of Emad Karim.