The protests that started in June and led to the overthrow of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi by the military, did not only reveal the complex nature of Egyptian politics, but also exposed the plight of women protesters who are regularly assaulted and raped by mobs during such political events.
Egyptian women actively participate in politics including protests that saw the overthrow of presidents such as Hosni Mubarak on February 11, 2011; and of course the latest Mohamed Morsi on July 3, 2013.
However what the world had not known till then or had not been told is the story of scores of women assaulted and raped by mobs during protests.
In a recent report titled ‘Egypt: Epidemic of Sexual Violence’, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reveals horrific levels of sexual violence against women in Tahrir Square during the recent protests.
According to the rights group ‘at least 91 women were mob raped in Tahrir Square, over four days of protests that began June 30, 2013, in circumstances it calls ‘ climate of impunity’ on the part of perpetrators.
HRW calls on all leaders to condemn and take measures to address sexual violence against women in Tahrir Square.
Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch said: “The rampant sexual attacks during the Tahrir Square protests highlight the failure of the government and all political parties to face up to the violence that women in Egypt experience on a daily basis in public spaces .
“These are serious crimes that are holding women back from participating fully in the public life of Egypt at a critical point in the country’s development,” he added.
In disturbing accounts reported on video by HRW scores of women gave harrowing accounts of sexual assaults and rape perpetrated by mobs.
In one account a woman said as she took pictures of the square and the crowds during the protest, she had no idea what would happen to her in the seconds that followed.
“They made a tight circle around me. They started moving their hands every inch of my body. They violated every inch of my body. I was so much traumatised I was only screaming at the moment. I was just screaming at the moment. I could not speak. I could not cry for help. I was just screaming. I could not speak,” she recounted.
The woman believes it is difficult to get justice and expressed her mistrust of the legal system in the country. She bemoans the state’s lack of support for women victims.
“I don’t have so much confidence in the legal system, in the judiciary system in Egypt because it goes in a very strange and ambiguous way,” she said.
These sentiments are widely shared. Civic groups say often, when women are assaulted, no one comes to help; and the police for their part, are nowhere to be seen.
Azza Soliman, Founder of Centre for Egyptian Women Legal Assistance says there are bad relations between citizens and the state police. As a result the general public cannot trust the police.
“We have a history of oppression and bad relationships with the police. Men and women fear going to the police,” she observed.
In a video a young woman who chose to remain anonymous told HRW that she has been assaulted many times but could not do anything because of fear.
“It has happened to me several times but I don’t always react, because I’m afraid of the reaction from the guy in front of me. And I am afraid the people around me won’t back me up,” said the victim.
Heba Morayef, Director of Human Rights Watch Egypt tells of an increase in mob assaults against women in the last two years.
“They have happened against female protesters in Tahrir Square and central Cairo,” she says.
According to Morayef assaults against women are perpetrated by a large number of men often leading to rape.
“Sexual harassment is part of a woman’s daily life in the Egypt Street,” Morayef adds.
Morayef says mobs attack women with impunity because they know they will not be held to account.
She however says as a result of the state’s failure and lack of accountability; activists and civil society have taken it upon themselves to provide protection for women.
Men say women are attacked in this way because of the way they walk or dress.
A man who spoke to HRW on condition of anonymity said: “It’s not a good habit, it’s wrong, but they lead us to do this. From the way they dress. From the way they walk. Everything. They push Egyptian men to do this.”
Awareness and hope
Despite the failure of the majority of victims to come forward due to fear, there are signs that things are changing. Many more women become bolder. For example, access to social media has encouraged women especially those who are scared or embarrassed to report their cases.
Soliman says people are beginning to talk about these issues especially women and girls.
She believes the more people hear about these women the more they are likely to behave differently.
An end to assaults against Egyptian women depends very much on the authorities; politicians and religious accepting that there is a deep-seated problem. They should commit not only themselves but also resources to stamping out sexual assault against women. The wider society should also acknowledge that women play a pivotal role within the political fabric of Egypt; and that they are free to express themselves without fear of assault or violence.
Morayef said: “Our only hope for ending future mob assaults is political will on the part of the government to handle this issue not only the criminal side, and holding perpetrators accountable but looking into the role of the media, educational institutions and religious institutions and coordination between the ministries and national strategy to implement all these recommendations in the coming years.
“Otherwise we’ll have victims of sexual assault and harassment again and again,” she concludes.
- Almost 100 Women Sexually Assaulted in Cairo Protests (thejakartaglobe.com)
- Sex Attacks ‘Horrific,’ Rampant in Egypt: HRW (newser.com)
- Egypt needs a revolution against sexual violence | Mona Eltahawy (guardian.co.uk)
- Sexual violence in Egypt: ‘The target is a woman’ (guardian.co.uk)
- Tahrir Square Protests Reveal Sexual Assault Epidemic (bet.com)