It is the night of July 3, and on the streets of downtown Cairo thousands are celebrating the ousting of Egypt’s deposed president, Mohamed Morsi. But below ground, in the police booth of Tahrir Square’s metro station, Joanna Joseph is attempting to comfort a young girl.
She had been surrounded by dozens of men in the square, stripped and sexually assaulted. And now, on the request of her family, a medic is trying to conduct a virginity test on the floor of the police booth.
“I was shouting at the doctor not to touch the girl. The girl couldn’t even cope with hearing the crowds,” says Joseph, who is a volunteer with the Anti-Sexual Harassment Campaign (OpAntiSh), a grassroots organisation set up in November 2012, which sends teams of volunteers to protests to intervene in mob assaults. “The policeman said he had received four or five girls in this state every day,” she adds.
Since the 2011 uprising against Hosni Mubarak, then the Egyptian president, attacks like these have become an epidemic in Tahrir Square, the site of many of the protests. And in the week surrounding the ousting of Morsi, 150 such cases were reported. Many others, of course, go unreported. The level of violence involved is often extreme – in January, two teenage girls were raped with knives.
Thirty-year-old musician Yasmine el-Baramawy, who was attacked in Tahrir Square last November, describes the pattern: Men surround the woman, rip off her clothes and then perform manual rape, while an outer circle fends off anyone who might try to help her with sticks, blades and belts.
“They were taking photos of me and laughing,” Baramawy says. “They pinned me naked to the hood of a car and drove me around.”
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The speed, efficiency and ferocity of the attacks imply that they are orchestrated, and many believe they are used by political factions as a tool to deter women from protesting while simultaneously discrediting demonstrators. But the fact that the assaults occurred under Mubarak, the military, Morsi and the current interim president, Adly Mansour, suggest the problem may have far deeper roots.
And while the attacks are most prevalent and brutal in Tahrir, they also occur outside of a political context: In May, rights groups reported similar assaults at a pop concert in the coastal city of Ain Sokhna.
“The problem of sexual harassment and assault has been evident for a very long time,” says Amal Elmohandes, the director of the Women Human Rights Defenders programme. “They took place as far back as 2006 during Eid celebrations, at the metro stations or near the cinemas.”
In fact, a study by the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women released in April reported that 99.3 percent of Egyptian women have experienced some form of sexual harassment, while 96.5 percent have been subject to harassment in the form of touching.
But activists say the number of sexual assaults has increased post-revolution as there has been a surge in the number of women present in public spaces. Furthermore, Elmohandes says, “as society is more brutalised, people are increasingly expressing themselves through violent actions”.
‘Blaming the victim’
Increased opportunity and a traumatised population, however, does not fully explain the extent of the problem in Egypt. And the language used to describe the assaults reveals just how deeply embedded the problem is.
The word “taharush”, which means “harassment”, was only adopted in the context of sexual assault in the last decade. “Instead, people used to say ‘flirtation’ [‘mo’aksa’] – they sugar-coated the problem,” explains Mariam Kirollos, a women’s rights activist and volunteer with OpAntiSh.
The use of the term “flirtation” rather than harassment implies a consensual act, and contributes to an already entrenched culture of “blaming the victim”, as women are perceived to be somehow complicit.
Consequently, answering back is widely considered inappropriate in Egypt – and can, in some instances, provoke a violent reaction. When, in 2012, 16-year-old Eman Mostafa spat at the man who groped her breasts, her attacker shot her dead.
The roots of the problem, women’s rights activists say, are in the home. And with domestic violence and marital rape not considered crimes under Egyptian law, it is hard to change attitudes on the street.
Women’s rights groups had worked on legislation to criminalise domestic abuse, but this was shelved when Mubarak’s parliament was dissolved post-revolution. Since then there have been two further attempts. El-Nadeem Centre for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence, an Egyptian NGO that offers legal and psychological support to victims of assault, drafted a law addressing domestic violence, marital rape and sexual violence against women. But the effort was abandoned when the parliament was again dissolved by the then-ruling military council last year.
Similar umbrella legislation put forward by the state-run National Council for Women this year was also put on hold when the Shura Council, Egypt’s upper house of parliament, was dismantled after Morsi was ousted. “Egypt is never stable enough for us to introduce these draft laws,” explains Farah Shash, a psychologist and researcher at El-Nadeem Centre.
As it stands, under Egyptian law sexual harassment is not criminialised, and rape by objects or hands is only classified as assault.
Shash says young boys are rarely reprimanded by their parents for harassing girls in public, and that it is not uncommon to see children speaking inappropriately to women as they mirror the adult behaviour around them. “Often, families will just laugh,” she says.
The issue is not addressed in schools either, where the curriculum reinforces traditional gender roles. “You’ll see textbook examples of girls helping their mother in the kitchen, while the boys are with their fathers at work. It sets this idea in kids’ minds that women are meant to be at home [and] men on the streets,” Shash says.
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These attitudes contribute to a sense that men have power over women, who in turn become commodities, activists say. “Women are dehumanised, their bodies can be tampered with,” explains Elmohandes.
A culture of impunity
There is also a culture of impunity at the state level, with assailants rarely facing any consequences for their actions. Baramawy filed a joint complaint with six other women about their sexual assaults in Tahrir before the Qasr el-Nil prosecution in March. Prosecutors were reportedly cooperative but they had no evidence: they kept asking women to identify their attackers, an impossible request with such large mobs.
And, according to Heba Morayef, the Egypt director of Human Rights Watch, the security forces compound the problem. “Both the police and the military have been involved in sexual violence against women. They get away with it, so there has been no accountability,” she says, noting that the military conducted forced virginity tests on female demonstrators in March 2011. Elmohandes says it has become socially unacceptable for a woman to even enter a police station because of the fear of being sexually harassed.
Successive governments have failed to prioritise fighting sexual violence against women. “The problem is always postponed until the political situation ‘settles down’,” notes Morayef.
In February, on the one occasion that sexual assault was addressed by the human rights committee of the Shura Council, members of the council blamed women for the attacks in Tahrir, suggesting that they should not attend protests. One committee member from a Salafist party, Adel Afifi, even declared: “The woman has 100 percent responsibility.”
For the sake of women and the sake of this country, this violence cannot continue.
Activists are pushing for streetlights to be placed in locations like Tahrir and are requesting that dedicated security forces units be set up to tackle the problem. But these are just partial steps. “This is not something that can be addressed from a piecemeal approach. It has to be a comprehensive strategy on behalf of the government,” Morayef says.
In the meantime, volunteers in grassroots campaigns are left to plug the gaps. The male and female volunteers at OpAntiSh not only attempt to rescue women from sexual assaults, they also run hotlines and document cases. Societal awareness campaign Harassmap tracks sexual harassment across Egypt using an online interactive map. Meanwhile, Kirollos says, a coalition of rights groups are working on drawing up key articles focusing on the protection of women for the country’s new constitution.
Although Tahrir has become a no-go area for some women, and protesters now cordon off those who do attend into gender-segregated pens, many survivors are joining movements to combat the violence. But they fear that without effective state institutions as Egypt again finds itself in political limbo, the issue will continue to be ignored – with devastating consequences for the country’s women.
“It is becoming more violent and increasing in number,” says OpAntiSh spokesperson Enjy Ghozlan. “For the sake of women and the sake of this country, this violence cannot continue.”