Cairo, 25 Jan. 2013:
I volunteered with the Op Anti-Sexual Harassment initiative for the second anniversary of Egypt’s revolution. It aims at making political demonstrations and sit-ins safe for women after reported incidents of groping, assault and rape in and around Tahrir Square, the main site for Cairo’s political demonstrations, have been on the rise over the last two years. And while the team was larger than it was when it first when out in December, with over 100 volunteers, we also faced the largest and most intense known incidents of sexual violence in one night.
As has been reported, Opantish dealt with 19 cases of assault, of which one – a woman of 19 years of age – had her genitalia cut with a knife. Another similar volunteer taskforce, Tahrir Bodyguards, dealt with at least 6 cases, bringing the total know incidents of assault on that night to 25. There could be more.
And, when I say assault, I mean women who have been attacked by a mob of 20, 30, 40 men, who strip a woman naked either fully or partially in public and in most cases insert their fingers into her genitalia and/or buttocks. There are plenty of testimonies of women, either on the website of Nazra for Feminist Studies or Facebook, describing their experiences of this. Opantish is still collecting testimonies.
I worked with the team that goes in to rescue women coming under attack. These are among the bravest and toughest people I have ever met. They are risking their lives and bodies to save someone else. My own, personal experience, however, was none of the above. When faced with the moment of having to intervene in a melee of angry, animal-like swarm of men, unclear of who is trying to help and who is an attacker, I became a coward. Luckily, my team mates of men and women were not.
Our shift started at 7pm. We were stationed on top of a raised platform in the square opposite the Kentucky Fried Chicken store. This, we thought, would give us a good view of who was coming under attack and where. It was only a few minutes after being on the platform that we had our first cases. Men screamed “help, she’s coming under attack” and my teammates responded. They went into the crowd to lift the first girl up on to the stage. I held her hand and sat her down. She was shaking and crying. She said she’d been assaulted and kept asking for her sister, who was separated from her in the crowd. All I could do was reassure her that we’d get her sister back somehow and that she’d be taken to safety; though it really wasn’t clear how. We were on a raised platform with men all around, and no marker of who was on your side and who wasn’t.
A few minutes passed and another girl was under attack. I looked into the crowd and saw my friend squeezing his way through the crush of men to bring the girl up onto the stage. Through the scrum of men her light-coloured hair came out first and then her body, like someone being rescued out of an ocean current. Again, we sat her down, she was crying and shaking. “Please, get me out of here,” she said.
Aside from my seven teammates, the stage had about 20 to 30 people, men and women, who I did not know. At this stage, I particularly distrusted any man I did not recognise. They formed a cordon around us and I wasn’t convinced it was for our protection. We kept feeling the force of waves of men trying to get on to the stage from the square, and thought “fuck, we’re going to get attacked.” We needed to get out. Our challenge was to get through the crowd, while keeping the women and us safe.
But good people do exist. Men formed a cordon creating a safe passage for us to exit from. We ran through it; though, the last part was a struggle. At the exit where Tahrir Square meets Talaat Harb street, the cordon stopped and suddenly we were in a confusing crowd again. We were all groped, and a man tried to drag me back into the square. We tugged back and forth, before getting out and into a nearby safe house.
The stories of what women and men went through that night continues to haunt me. Volunteers also came under attack, either sexually or physically with knives and bottles. That’s not to mention the deaths of about 50 people in Port Said and elsewhere since Jan. 25. The toll of the revolution’s martyrs continues to rise, and on Friday night, in Tahrir Square, those 25 women were martyrs too. Their bodies violated, though not fatally, in a space of supposed revolution. It was sickening to hear anti-government chants drowning out the screams and calls for help in the square that night.
What pleasure do men get from overpowering a woman? Is it sexual or more about power? Are they oppressed themselves? Is this the culmination of years of oppression under a dictatorship and a state that still hasn’t managed to make people’s day lives any more prosperous, or hopeful?
Why do men harass women on a daily basis in Egypt with catcalls, groping and occasionally – something I have experienced – masturbating in front of you?
How many of the people that carry out these mob attacks are paid? Is this an attack on the revolution? A recent documentary interviewed men, who admitted to being paid (and it’s not very much – 10 to 20 Egyptian pounds), but they didn’t say who. Are they plain-clothed police officers from the Interior Ministry, only streets away from Tahrir Square? Is this their revenge against the revolution? Or members of the former regime? Religious groups? Mob attacks on women occurred under former president Hosni Mubarak’s rule; some were targeted attacks, others were just opportunistic.
Is it the deep sense of patriarchy and morality that exists in Egyptian, and Arab society, that view the active, public, empowered life of women as a threat? With women’s increased presence in demonstrations, especially, that often go on late into the night, the perceptions of what is morally appropriate for a woman to do is constantly being challenged.
The silence around issues of sex, especially sex before marriage, and rape in the Middle East also perpetuates the problem.
Or is there an element of twisted sexual fantasy that exists in rape and assault, provoked by pornography and sexual repression that come into play here too?
I really don’t know the answers. I just know we need to ask these and other questions, and give our full support to groups like Opantish that are doing a stellar job to bring Egypt’s feminist movement and revolution forward.