Egypt at the moment feels like a series of battles and struggles, separated by geography but all ultimately linked together, hurtling towards some unknown destiny. People are dying and politicians are floundering, however this post is about one fight: the one against sexual assault.
The fight to free people’s bodies from sexual violence is a global one. Everywhere women and men have been and are raped, assaulted, and threatened with violent sexual language and gestures. The motivations seem to be myriad: individuals, armies, and political groups do this to try to intimidate and control people, or simply to empower themselves. The fight over the bodies of women in Egypt is the one I know the most intimately, and the one that I struggle the most to understand. Egypt’s darkness when it comes to rampant, daily sexual harassment has been discussed in western and local media.
Since last November, large numbers of mob sexual assaults have marred protests in and around Tahrir. In some cases, these mob assaults have involved the use of knives and other weapons against women and people trying to help them escape the assault. Groups such as Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment (Opantish, which, to be forthcoming, I am personally involved with), Tahrir Bodyguard, and others have been working to combat these assaults and to campaign against sexual violence on a broader scale. The attacks have been focused on Tahrir but we have reports of them occurring in other parts of the city and the country. The Shura Council’s despicable statements earlier this year about these violent attacks, which centered on victim blaming, are evidence of the state’s utter lack of responsibility or even acknowledgement regarding this issue.
I do not know whether the assaults are premeditated or spontaneous. Even if groups of men plan to go out and attack women in this way, there is no doubt that the embedded social perceptions surrounding harassment contribute to the growth of the mob.
28 June saw a big rally in Tahrir demanding Morsi’s departure from power. I received calls after midnight with verified reports of cases of mob assault in and around Tahrir. The next day, Opantish and other groups were on the ground, and, perhaps due to the deterrent effect of their presence, there were no cases that we knew of. But I could not help but notice, as I moved around downtown, that the language people used in their verbal harassment was more violent than usual, and I wondered if this was a social side effect of the physical attacks of the previous night. It is immensely depressing to analyze harassment in this relativistic way, as if the starting point is regular daily harassment with less unpleasant or threatening language rather than no harassment at all.
Yesterday, 30 June, some friends and I joined a march from Saray el Kobba to the presidential palace calling for Morsi’s departure and the rejection of military rule. The atmosphere was largely festive, with singing, chanting, banners, and flags. After we joined other marches congregating at the palace, we stood around drinking iced coffee in the shade, disoriented by the safe, upbeat atmosphere after days of anxiety and with the knowledge that things would surely be violent elsewhere in the country. I left to go to Tahrir and work with Opantish, which was operating that evening.
Like many, I was stunned by how many people protesting in and around Tahrir carpeted the streets, mostly chanting against Morsi. I had not seen so many people around Tahrir before, not in the eighteen days that unseated Mubarak in 2011 or at any other time. Military helicopters frequently circled the square, at one point bizarrely dropping Egyptian flags onto the crowd in a blatant gesture of political partiality.
The atmosphere felt more threatening to me immediately after getting out of the taxi near Tahrir, at which point it was still daylight. I do not understand what kind of subliminal group psychology contributes to this, but it seems like there is some consensus that Tahrir and downtown are areas where it is particularly accepted to harass women. I do not know if geographic locations develop certain reputations, and therefore bring this behavior out in people.
I started my shift with Opantish at around 7:30 last night. We did not wrap up until after 3:00 in the morning. We received forty-six reports of cases of mob sexual assault in and around Tahrir. We were able to intervene in around half, in coordination with other groups such as Tahrir Bodyguard. Some attacks involved the use of blades, sticks, and other weapons. One case had to go to the hospital and underwent surgery and several others needed medical attention. Some volunteers were also wounded in the process. The square became undeniably unsafe for women.
This was the highest number of reported attacks that Opantish and other groups have ever received and verified. I shudder to think of how many women were attacked in cases we did not hear of.
Political groups are distorting the assaults and using them for their own selfish ends. The Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters post footage of the attacks online and use images at rallies as evidence that the anti-Morsi protesters are all criminals and thugs. Opposition forces are silent on the issue, or deny that assaults are happening altogether. Time and time again, we have seen political opposition groups call for rallies in Tahrir and then do nothing to secure the space from systematic sexual violence. People on social media also attacked Opantish and other groups. These people who attack the coverage of these assaults are convinced that we are fabricating the reports, or want us to keep them quiet so as not to create panic and scare people from going out into the square, suggesting that acknowledging and trying to end the violence is what will discourage women’s participation, rather than the violence itself. Others say that this is not the time for this fight, for “women’s issues,” suggesting that the use of life-threatening violence against human beings simply because they are women is something we can ignore, but until when? Until we get another government to lead our patriarchal state institutions? Or until the military steps in?
The men and women who time and time again have dropped everything to combat these sexual assaults, risking their psychological and physical safety, and being creative, resourceful, and intuitive are immensely encouraging. I have to hope that there are enough people who see the process of social change as multi-faceted, more complex and more difficult than demanding the departure of a president or a government.
I do not know what political future Egypt will create for itself--continued violence between the Muslim Brotherhood and those who oppose it, military intervention, or a coup. I am only certain that the fight against sexual violence and misogyny must be in the heart of the larger struggle for freedom. It cannot be tabled for later, it cannot be hushed up and ignored. We certainly will not allow it.
[This article originally appeared on “Cairo Again”.]