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Sexual Violence in Egypt: Myths and Realities

[Downtown Cairo Graffiti. Image by Soraya Morayef] [Downtown Cairo Graffiti. Image by Soraya Morayef]

In memory of Eman Mustafa.

Last September, sixteen-year-old Eman Mustafa was walking with a friend in the village of Arab Al Kablat in Assiut, when a man groped her breasts. She turned to face him and spat in his face. He shot her dead with an automatic rifle as a price for her bravery. Mustafa’s death was an eye-opener to those who claim that sexual violence is an urban issue. Thanks to human rights organizations and activist groups, Eman's killer was sentenced to life imprisonment in June 2013.

Violence against women across historical, cultural, and national divides continues to be a socially accepted practice, if not a norm. In the realms of both policy and social awareness, we have collectively failed to tackle this issue with serious rigor. As a result, we seem to be witnessing an increase in sexual violence and brutality.

In Egypt, sexual harassment is widespread and touches the lives of the majority of women whether on the streets, in public transportation, or at the work place, the super market, or political protests. It is true that sexual harassment still lacks a unified definition, but it is not difficult to identify unwelcome verbal or physical sexual violation. Many Egyptians, women included, are unclear as to what constitutes sexual harassment. Others sadly, do not think it is a problem. One thing is clear though, and that is the actions of the various governments of the last thirty years have been limited to statements of regret and unmet promises.

The word taharrush (harassment) is a relatively new term in the daily lexicon. Until recently, sexual harassment was referred to as mu‘aksa (flirtation). That term alone reveals the multiple layers of denial, misogyny, and violence Egyptians must confront in tackling sexual harassment. In addition to rape and physical assault we must equally tackle name-calling, groping, and the barraging of women with sexual invitations. All of these acts normalize violence and hatred against women and they must become socially unacceptable.

Even though, for example, Eman Mustafa was a veiled villager, one key argument in the victim-blaming that is salient in our everyday narratives is the common and vulgar perception that sexual harassment occurs when women dress “provocatively.”  In fact, the only thing that Egyptians who face sexual harassment have in common is that over ninety-nine percent of them are females.

Over the last decade, Egyptians have been working intensively on spreading both social and legal awareness on sexual violence and harassment. In 2005, the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights launched its “Safe Streets for Everyone” initiative to combat sexual harassment. In 2008, more than sixteen human rights organizations and independent groups formed the “Task Force Against Sexual Violence.” In 2010, that Task Force released its own bill to amend Penal Code provisions on sexual violence. That year too, the volunteer-based initiative Harassmap established a free software method to receive anonymous SMS reporting that it would process into a mapping system. Harassmap’s mission was to render sexual harassment socially unacceptable. 

Over the past two years, activists have formed many other independent movements and online groups that raise awareness, empower women to stand up against gender-based violence and speak out by sharing testimonies and ideas to combat sexual harassment, and in some cases, expose the perpetrators. After Eman Mustafa’s death last September, anti-sexual harassment protests were held at Assiut University to condemn the murder of a girl who fought for her bodily rights.

Women who have suffered from sexual harassment are usually reluctant to tell their stories, fearing reprisals and the dreaded label of the agitators. Nevertheless, if there is any noticeable progress in fighting sexual harassment in Egypt, it would be the rise in the number of women who are speaking up about their experiences and filing reports against their offenders. Another important development has been the formation of independent volunteer-based groups who fight sexual violence on the ground across the nation. In 2010, Harassmap received requests to expand their campaign to Alexandria, Daqahliya, and Minya. This year, Harassmap has expanded to sixteen governorates other than Cairo. With the help of more than 700 volunteers nationwide, Harassmap is reaching out to rural communities to end social acceptability of sexual harassment.

In June 2008, Noha al-Ostaz experienced a form of sexual violence on a Cairo street. She was confident that ignoring the behavior of the offender was ineffective. With the help of a friend and a bystander, Al-Ostaz managed to take the offender to a police station and file charges against him. Three months later, and for the first time in Egypt, the offender was sentenced to three years in prison on charges of sexual assault. Al-Ostaz paved the way for other women to stand up for their rights. Her action has encouraged several to pursue harassment charges against assailants.

Group Assaults

Group sexual assaults in public are not a recent phenomenon in Egypt. Over the holiday festivities in 2006, following Ramadan, Egyptian bloggers reported cases of group sexual assault in downtown Cairo, where large groups of men groped veiled and unveiled women, and in some cases ripped their clothes off. This crime continues to occur in public spaces, especially during public holidays, and lately during political protests. This type of sexual assault is even more violent and aggressive and entails unwanted sexual contact. In some cases it escalates to rape, which can be defined as the penetration, no matter how slight, of the vulva or anus with any body part or object without the consent of the survivor.

Sexual Violence in Protests

The use of sexual violence as a political tool against women in protests dates back to 25 May 2005, also known as Black Wednesday. That day female protesters were targeted and sexually assaulted by plain-clothed policemen and NDP thugs in front of the press syndicate while protesting the constitutional amendments paving the way for Gamal Mubarak’s inheritance of the presidency.

The Public Prosecutor failed to pursue the case when it was reported to his office. However the following year, four female journalists decided to file a complaint to the African Commission for Human and Peoples’ Rights with the help of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. After almost eight years of investigations, the commission issued the verdict blaming the Egyptian government for this incident. It called for financial compensation for the victims as well as for the prosecution to reopen investigations, which was a positive step for Egypt’s anti-sexual violence movement.

After the fall of Hosni Mubarak on 11 February 2011, successive governments have been complicit in sexual violence against female protesters. We can begin this trajectory with the “virginity tests” that the military conducted on seven female protesters on 9 March 2011. We can continue this trajectory until today. While I prefer sticking to the name sit al banat (the best of all girls), I am somehow thankful that the female protester who was savagely beaten by the military forces in December 2011 was clad in an abaya (robe). Her anonymity sheds light on the probable use of various forms of violence against any female protester, whether it is sponsored by the state, or covered by its complicity.

The wave of sexual violence cases reported to women’s rights organizations and anti-sexual harassment groups has significantly risen in the past thirteen months, especially during protests in the vicinity of Tahrir Square. Impunity still prevails. On 1 February 2013, an Egyptian heroine by the name of Yasmine El Baramawy shared her horrific experience of group assault that took place on 23 November 2011 in Tahrir on television. “Whenever I see Mohammed Mahmoud Street, I hold my pants,” El Baramawy said. She became a symbol of strength and resistance to many women, not only in Egypt, but across the world. Her stance and her presence, at the 12 February 2013 global protest against “sexual terrorism in Egypt” continue to inspire women to carry on with their revolution, and fight marginalization.

On 25 January 2013, during large demonstrations in Tahrir marking the second anniversary of the beginning of the Egyptian revolution, Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment/Assault (OpAntiSH), a tireless activist group founded in November 2012 to intervene in cases of group sexual assault in large protests, which I am proud to have taken part in, documented nineteen cases of group sexual assault, including one woman who was raped with a sharp object.

In March 2013, El Baramawy and six other women filed a joint complaint about their sexual assaults before the prosecution. “Prosecutors opened an investigation and took the women’s testimony in March, but the case is still under investigation and has not resulted in the identification or indictment of any attackers,” Human Rights Watch said 3 July 2013.

Even though there is a lack of confidence in the judiciary process, which is usually lengthy and the outcome is rarely just, some women insist on pursuing a law suit against their perpetrators for the purpose of not only legally, but socially criminalizing such acts.

In April 2013, Lyla El-Gueretly, who was verbally harassed and attacked when she confronted her harasser, decided to take her case forward regardless of all the obstacles. On 19 June, I joined El-Gueretly at Abdeen Court in Cairo where she was briefly questioned. The perpetrator had not shown up. A few hours later, her lawyer informed us that the offender, Ahmed Yousef, thirty-seven, was sentenced to three months in absentia. “Not bad for a start,” said El-Gueretly’s whose faith in the legal system was far from strong. This verdict was issued three days after Eman Mustafa’s killer was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment. In this sense than, women’s persistence to file reports is a form of uprising against the state and its failure to reform the judicial and security sectors.

The Government’s Response

The government’s response to such crimes has been devastating on many levels. On 11 February 2013, a member of the Shura Council’s human rights committee blamed women for their rape in Tahrir. Later in April, the same member and others in the committee condemned signing the UN declaration for combating and eliminating all forms of violence against women claiming that it is an apostasy.

Former president Morsi launched an initiative to “support the rights and liberties of Egyptian women” in March 2013. The campaign only had a few tangible outcomes. One of these yet to be realized outcomes is the establishment of a unit that deals with crimes of violence against women at the Ministry of Interior. This unit is supposedly to be staffed by trained female police officers. Another—little too late—achievement was the draft law on eliminating all forms of violence against women that the National Council for Women (NCW) submitted in June 2013.

The former information minister was not invited to any of the sessions of the former’s president’s initiative. Instead of raising awareness on sexual harassment in Egypt, the former minister Salah Abdel Maksoud partook in his own sexual innuendos when questioned by women journalists. “Come and I will show you where?” responded, which is an expression in colloquial Egyptian Arabic that bears sexual connotations, at two different occasions in April 2013.

Starting on 28 June, and until 7 July during the protests to oust former president Morsi, Nazra For Feminist Studies and OpAntiSH have documented a total of at least 186 cases ranging from group sexual harassment and assault, to the violent rape of at least three female protestors. While the documented patterns might hint at pre-planned assaults, eyewitnesses and volunteers have testified to bystanders’ spontaneous involvement.

Instead of investigating such crimes and holding the perpetrators accountable, the former presidency and ruling party have exploited the number of cases to deface the opposition. Some in the opposition have also used these cases to accuse the presidency and the Muslim Brotherhood of the assaults. Neither side has solid proof and both are instrumentalizing brutality. The Freedom and Justice Party did not limit itself to using the number of cases in its political bargaining. It went further still and blatantly violated basic media ethics by publishing the details of one survivor’s assault in print and online. Such ruthless use of women’s violated bodies as political battlefields is a repulsive pattern that we must refuse at all costs.

Intervention Groups in Tahrir

Volunteer-based groups such as Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment/Assault, Tahrir Bodyguard, and the Anti-Sexual Harassment movement (Didd al-Taharrush), consisting of courageous women and men from different age groups are attempting to secure protest spaces as safe spaces. They are carrying out the task that both the government and political forces have failed in. Without these groups, and the support of other organizations, it would have been nearly impossible to identify the estimated number of sexual assaults. Such groups also empower women and encourage their participation in the revolution by different means; they insist that  “history is herstory, too.”

Egypt’s Political Transition

Egypt’s interim government must take immediate action to confront sexual harassment. In March 2011, the Supreme Council of Armed Forces amended the Penal Code provisions on sexual assault by toughening the penalties. Such a step is useless if accountability is rare. Even if the current government passes the NCW’s bill, laws will remain words on paper unless they are implemented. To guarantee their enactment, there is a need for radical reforms in the policing, judicial, educational, health, and media sectors. One essential and immediate step could be the installation of street lighting to enhance urban safety. Religious institutions should also approach the topic of sexual harassment with their congregations.

The marginalization and exclusion of women from the public and political spheres will only make matters worse. What we can hope for now is that the interim president will not limit the promotion of women’s rights to the appointment of a female advisor for women’s affairs and female ministers. Women-only metro compartments will never protect women from sexual violence, and neither will a male-dominated social system.

The Role of Women

To sidestep tragedies such as Eman Mustafa's case and to combat all gender based crimes, Egypt urgently needs an organized movement to struggle against the mechanisms of sexist, racist, classist, nationalist, and militarist ideologies that suppress women. Violence against women is a product of gender inequality that promotes unequal gender roles and portrays women’s bodies as commodities. Given all of the ambiguities of the struggle in and for Egypt, an organized and independent women’s movement can only strengthen the struggle for democracy, equality, freedom, peace and justice.

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