Cairo, Egypt – Nearly a year and a half after Lara Logan was sexually assaulted by a mob of men in Tahrir Square, women have increasingly been coming forward with disturbing personal testimonies of similar attacks.
Natasha Smith, a British journalism student who was in Cairo on a research internship, recently lit up the social media sphere with a detailed blog account of an attack she suffered in Tahrir.
The posting recounts how a horde of men encircled and quickly overpowered Smith, who was accompanied by two male friends, on the outskirts of the Square on June 24.
“Hundreds of men pulled my limbs apart and threw me around. They were scratching and clenching my breasts and forcing their fingers inside me in every possible way,” she wrote. “Although a few men tried to form a human shield around me, offering me rags to cover my bruised body, men were still able to touch me. There were just too many.”
After being hidden in a tent, Smith only escaped her attackers by donning a niqab and being smuggled out of Tahrir by a man who ordered her not to cry for fear it would alert her assailants to her identity.
In another account, an anonymous victim, who called herself “C”, was also subjected to a vicious gang assault in Tahrir on June 2 after being separated from her group of friends.
“Before I knew it, I was thrown up against a wall where a motorcycle was parked,” she recalled in her testimony to the Egyptian centre, Nazra for Feminist Studies, a feminist organisation that has been seeking to record as many of these incidents as possible. “I was standing on top of the bike while my friend and a few other men tried to make a half circle to protect me. But there were more men trying to hurt me than protect me and I was grabbed all over and my pants and shirt were ripped.”
After being dragged into the foyer of a nearby apartment building, “C” was continuously violated until she was finally rescued by a group of men that hid her with a family living in one of the flats. Much like Logan and Smith, the men attacking her not only forced their fingers into her body repeatedly, but also brutally beat her throughout the attack.
A surge in violence
The month of June ushered in a series of startlingly volatile sexual assault cases across Tahrir.
“In areas where there is conflict or transition or clashes, there is always violence against women. “
– Dalia Abd El Hameed, researcher
In addition to recorded individual attacks like those above, an attempted women’s rally scheduled to take place in the Square on June 8 ended in terrorwhen the women participating in the demonstration were beaten and violently groped, despite having male companions form a human chain around them for protection.
While these are not the first such incidents – the women demonstrating in commemoration of International Woman’s Day in Tahrir on March 8, 2011 were also groped and attacked until the intervention of an army soldier – private organisations like Nazra are saying that June witnessed a sudden and alarming increase in their frequency.
Dalia Abd El Hameed, a researcher for the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), confirmed a noticeable increase in the violence.
“While sexual assault was also a case in the first days of the revolution, it was less obvious and less harsh and wasn’t committed by gangs… what’s remarkable about these [incidents] is that they are [all] gangs,” she explained. “There was the incident of Lara Logan and a couple others, but other than that it was primarily harassment in the frontlines in places like Mohamed Mahmoud Street where the violence was highest.”
According to Abd El Hameed, one possible cause for the rise in violence is the general increase in violence throughout the country since January 2011. “The process of militarisation that the country is undergoing now is creating a parallel culture of normalised violence,” she said. “In areas where there is conflict or transition or clashes, there is always violence against women.”
A high-ranking police official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, also linked the increase in sexual violence to “the overall instability in the country and the lack of law enforcement”.
He added that it was especially true in Tahrir, where “the police are as helpless as anyone else. They fear the crowd would turn on them.”
In spite of growing sexual violence in the Square, it is unclear how – or if – these cases are being investigated.
The anonymous police officer explained that daily reports containing all of the crimes registered in police stations throughout Cairo are sent on a daily basis to the Office of the Commissioner of the Police in the city’s Bab el Khalk district.
The reports are then supposed to be reviewed by the commissioner, but when asked about how the department follows up, the officer replied, “[only] God knows what happens”.
In addition, the official also revealed his suspicion that officers omit some incidents from the reports to give the impression that they are managing crime effectively, and sometimes discourage sexual assault victims to file cases by “mentioning how shameful the whole process will be for the victims’ families”.
In a report published in 2008 by the Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights (ECWR), only 2.4 per cent of Egyptian women and 7.5 per cent of foreign women in Egypt victimised by sexual violence said they reported the incident to the police.
Among the reasons they gave were the beliefs that the police would be ineffective, or that filing a report could negatively impact their reputations.
A sense of frustration and helplessness about the sexual violence in Tahrir has become increasingly evident across social media platforms, which have been set ablaze with the subject since the beginning of June.
|The Stream – Egyptian bloggers fight harassment|
One of the organisers of the doomed demonstration on June 8 and a popular figure in the local women’s rights movement, @sallyzohney, tweeted that same day: “Stop calling it harassment, a march of over 100 was attacked in #tahrir and no one gives a [expletive]. I’m sick to my stomach. It’s assault. #EndSH.”
Another popular Egyptian activist, @NoorNoor1, tweeted on June 26 that Smith’s account “nearly brought me to tears”, also ending his tweet with “#EndSH.”
The hashtag #EndSH stands for “End Sexual Harassment”; its recent predominant use in the Egyptian twitter scene is a strong indication of how much attention the violence has drawn in social media outlets.
I’m getting disgusted by tweeps who don’t find @natasha_journo story credible becuz no1 else tweeted about it.”
Despite the escalating violence, Abd El Hameed said that women should not stop protesting in Tahrir.
“The right to protest and to peaceful assembly is ensured for every person, this is what any person is entitled to any place in the world. [We] don’t have the agency to tell women to go or not to go to a certain place,” she said. “What we should call for is that women must have the right to participate safely.”
Rebecca Chiao, the Founder of HarassMap.org, differed on this point, saying “that the solution lies in society rather than in government. We waited years for the government to pass a [sexual violence/harassment] law. They passed one in March/April 2011, and nothing changed.”
“I think we need to go back to community pride in the safety and dignity of our streets, and I think the way to do this is to ask everyone to stop ignoring or giving excuses and tell [offenders] to stop,” she added.
Following the attack on Smith, Ikhwanweb, the official English language website of the Muslim Brotherhood, posted a message from MP Azza al-Garf, who condemned the incident and called for the enforcement of law.
However, it still remains to be seen if the Brotherhood’s former party chairman and Egypt’s newly appointed head of state, Mohamed Morsi, will make sexual violence against women in Tahrir and the rest of the country a priority on his domestic agenda.
If last month was any indication of what is to come, Morsi should be acting fast.