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Egypt: Sexual harassment as a political weapon


Cairo, (Al-Akhbar): In the wake of the revolution, Egyptian women remain as vulnerable as ever to the types of attacks they faced under the Mubarak regime. They cannot raise their voices in protest without putting their bodies at risk of molestation; it’s a bid to break their will, to deter them from resisting alongside men.

Many women have spoken out about the sexual assaults they endured during last week’s protests in Cairo. Among the most harrowing accounts was that of an activist who, while withholding her name, courageously described her ordeal in detail.

The young woman had gone to Tahrir Square to demonstrate against the actions of the governing Muslim Brotherhood. When she saw a group of men harassing a friend of hers, she tried to intervene to protect her.

“Along with a male friend, I tried to rescue her. They pushed us both away, so we fell on top of each other. Then they separated us and formed a circled around each of us. I wasn’t aware of anything after that. I was only aware of the hundreds of hands tearing off my clothes and groping my body in the most brutal way.

“The ones closest to me were raping me with their fingers in front and behind. One of them was even kissing my mouth. I was stripped completely naked. The more I tried to scream or defend myself the more violent they became.”

She heard agreement after one said, “Let’s take her away, boys, and then we can take turns.” She was spared that further horror when, after repeated pleas, one of the harassers pushed the others away.

The 22-year-old activist said she wanted to speak about her ordeal because she is convinced that reluctance to publicize such assaults and reveal the truth about them is the main reason they have become so common. That reluctance is widely shared.

“I am outraged by anyone who calls themselves a revolutionary, but when we talk about sexual harassment, they consider it a trivial issue – not one of their priorities – because there’s a revolution,” said Salma al-Tarz, a volunteer in the group Operation Anti-Harassment and Assault.

“The women subjected to sexual harassment in Tahrir Square are the same as the revolutionaries injured by the security forces, whom they make portraits of and consider to be heroes,” she said. “They forget about all these women who demonstrated and were assaulted. On the contrary, they say, ‘Keep quiet, so as not to give the revolution a bad reputation.’”

Is there a fundamental difference between the daily, rampant sexual harassment in Egypt and the incidents of “group harassment” witnessed recently in Tahrir Square?

According to Maysa Amir, a researcher at the Nazra Center for Women’s Studies, sexual harassment by individuals tends to be an opportunist act motivated by a desire for sexual gratification. The group assaults are usually organized, and the assailants feel protected by each other’s presence – not to mention the loopholes in current laws that allow groups of thugs to get away with assault.

“According to the law,” Amir explained, “the victim of sexual harassment is supposed to apprehend the culprit in the presence of witnesses and then take him to the nearest police station to file a complaint against him.”

“Police stations usually tell the women to go to the public prosecutor and submit an affidavit, which means starting a long, public legal case. Not every woman can face that, especially not in group harassment cases, so they prefer to keep quiet,” she said.

“The people behind the mob assaults in Tahrir Square know that, and take advantage of it to serve their purposes.”

Mohammad Taymour, coordinator of the “No To Harassment!” campaign, pointed out that the methods used by the groups of assailants in the recent Tahrir Square attacks were identical, indicating that they were coordinated, not spontaneous.

“They are carried out by hired gangs, just like the ones the [former ruling] National Democratic Party used,” said Mohammad Awwad, a leader of the Popular Current movement. “Now they are being used to terrorize demonstrators in the square.”

Why in Tahrir Square especially?

“Sexual harassment is used as a weapon to squash demonstrations and stigmatize certain places,” said Janet Abdul-Alim, coordinator of Fouada Watch, a group that campaigns on women’s issues.

“We have become accustomed to this phenomenon since Mubarak’s time when they used troops from Central Security. Under the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, it took the form of virginity tests and dragging women in the streets. It has become worse than ever under President Mursi. It has reached the extent of all-out rape,” she said.

“In all cases, the group that targets the woman has one objective: to break the hymen. The aim of this violence is not to harass the woman but to teach her a lesson. It is to associate demonstrating and going to Tahrir Square with shame, so as to stigmatize it, and frighten other women from going there.”

These savage methods seem unlikely to succeed in preventing Egyptian women from taking part in demonstrations. Thousands joined a women’s march to Tahrir Square on Wednesday, 6 February 2013, to protest both sexual harassment and the Muslim Brotherhood.

They held portraits of female Egyptian icons, such as the legendary singer Umm Kalthoum and the pioneering feminist Huda al-Shaarawi, who shed the veil around a century ago. The women chanted in support of upholding women’s rights and their role in the revolution. But they needed the protection of men, who lined up as human shields on either side the marchers to protect them from harassment gangs.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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