Systematic attacks targeting female protesters in Tahrir square have forced an ugly epidemic into the national spotlight.
JIHAN HAFIZ, TRNN CORRESPONDENT, CAIRO: It’s a grim reality that has lately united Egyptian women from all walks of life. Two years of increased sexualized violence against female protesters has forced an ugly epidemic into the national spotlight. The gang rapes and attacks on women in the revolution’s iconic Tahrir Square enraged many Egyptians to organize this protest specifically against sexualized violence. Angry chants condemned a system that condones and perpetuates violence targeting women.
JIHAN FADEL, EGYPTIAN ACTRESS (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): There was harassment before the revolution, but what we have now is gangs. I’m talking about 30, 40, 50 men attacking with knives. That’s not harassment. They’re attacking women with pocket knives. Is that harassment? These are crimes.
HAFIZ: Increased attacks singling out female protesters exploded over the past two years, culminating in scenes like this on January 25 last month. Volunteers and activists with anti-harassment campaigns filmed these mob attacks against women this past January 25.
UNIDENTIFIED (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): That’s Reem! There’s Reem! She’s in that one! There is another girl!
HAFIZ: Some of them were their fellow volunteers. Here one woman tries to comfort her infant daughter as a mob moves in. Inside these mobs, over a dozen women were gang-raped, relentlessly groped, stripped naked of their clothes, and assaulted with knives and iron rods. In one case, a 19-year-old girl was rushed to emergency surgery with large gashes to her genitalia. Such savagery has provoked women to arm themselves, brandishing their weapons during this march as a clear warning to their attackers.
REPORTER (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): Why are you holding this knife in the march?
DEMONSTRATOR (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): Because no one is going to force us into our homes, no one is going to scare us into hiding in our homes. and we are going to arm ourselves to defend ourselves. And any dog who dares to come near us, I will slice him! These crimes are orchestrated. It’s a social disease and it’s present in this society. But what is happening now is organized crime.
HAFIZ: Rights groups and activists are convinced the systematic attacks are products of state-sponsored repression.
LODNA DARWISH, ORGANIZER, OPANTISH: This is not the first time that the government uses sexual violence to intimidate men and women, especially women. We’ve been seeing, since Mubarak years until now, the government paying thugsâ€”and it’s provenâ€”to come and sexually harass women. They would come to the protest and not beat up women, just sexually harass them, undress them, drag them undressedâ€”and everybody probably saw the video of the blue-bra girl who was stripped of her clothes and dragged on the streets. This was the army. And then there was the virginity test, the so-called virginity test, which was like a rape incident of the army again, forcing 18 women to go through virginity tests. So it’s a continuous pattern of sexual humiliation.
UNIDENTIFIED (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): Hi. I’m with the campaign against sexual harassment. If there is any harassment in the squareâ€”.
HAFIZ: A number of newly-formed campaigns combating sexual harassment have been mobilizing within communities and on the streets.
DEMONSTRATORS (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): We the women will free Egypt!
HAFIZ: As the march roars through this busy neighborhood, scuffles break out between some of the female marchers and male onlookers.
DEMONSTRATOR (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): He said women are raped and harassed depending on how they dress. So I shamed him! In Arabic and English! I said, does anyone leave their home naked? Even if she dressed indecent, would she leave her home naked? Dog! That’s the Brotherhood’s mentality! They do this so we go back to our homes. But we will never!
HAFIZ: Although daily harassment is prevalent in this socially conservative society, the subject is often ignored when addressed.
DEMONSTRATOR (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): I no longer take my wife out because of harassment.
DEMONSTRATOR (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): We take a short trip on the metro, and I get into 36 fights.
DEMONSTRATOR (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): No, no.
DEMONSTRATOR (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): We don’t have the money to take a cab. If we take any public transportation, I have to sit her far against the window.
DEMONSTRATOR (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): No, no! There is no such thing!
DEMONSTRATOR (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): Don’t put Egypt in that category.
SALMA SAID, ORGANIZER, OPANTISH: We’re not only facing the problem of harassment, of sexual harassment; we’re also facing a huge problem of society wanting to be silent about it, the men being extremely aggressive when anyone trying to discuss what is happening.
HAFIZ: A recent study found over 80 percent of Egyptian women and over 95 percent of foreign women have experienced sexual harassment. Videos of mob assaults of women started appearing on YouTube years before the revolution. Salma was among some of the first to blog about it several years ago.
SAID: And I wrote my testimony about the time, the many, many, many times that I was sexually abused or sexually harassed from when I was a child till, like, now. And I asked other women to write about it as well, because I wasâ€”I mean, I was going to goâ€”going crazy because men said that these things don’t happen in Egypt and that Egypt is a religious country and these kind of things. So it happened, and I was sure that the same people who were saying this are the people who are harassing women in the street.
HAFIZ: Considered a taboo subject, victims are commonly blamed for the attack while the perpetrator is let off.
FADEL: But no one speaks out against it. Why? Because the victim is a woman, because they argue: what brought her there in the first place? Why is she in the streets? Women are supposed to be at home. Those who come to the streets are indecent. Rather than elicit a response, people are mocking it [rather] than responding to it.
HAFIZ: In the urban slums and among the rural poor, the issue is practically ignored.
UNIDENTIFIED (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): There is no religion. There’s no life. There is no father who tells their sons, that’s wrong. There is no concern for it. No one walks in the street and considers, this could be my mother or sister and it might happen to her. There is no such talk.
UNIDENTIFIED (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): It used to be just one individual, not the entire society against the girl. And there is no distinction. It doesn’t matter if she’s covered, showing her hair, elderly, a child. There is no distinction.
UNIDENTIFIED (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): I sat down and had a talk with my daughter, because rape and harassment also happens between teachers and the girls, to children my daughter’s age. Of course, she is just a child. She doesn’t understand anything. But I speak with her, and so does Sheren. We tell her not to go into the bathroom with the teacher.
HAFIZ: These women have quietly formed a support group to deal with harassment and sexual abuse in their community.
UNIDENTIFIED (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): She didn’t have any pants on.
HAFIZ: The silence is slowly being broken. Public discussion is opening up after the latest survivors of the mob attacks braved the backlash and recounted their experiences on national television.
UNIDENTIFIED (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): I felt as if I would die in that moment.
SAID: They have done an amazing favor for the rest of us, for everyone else, because they didn’t worry about facing their neighbors, their families. They were like, it’s not our fault that we were assaulted; it’s your fault, it’s society’s fault, it’s the men’s fault, it’s the government’s fault; and we are not going to suffer above our suffering from what happened; we have to solve this, and we’re going to speak up and we’re going to talk about it and we’re going to, like, make it explode in everyone’s faces.
HAFIZ: But it remains a long upward battle in this patriarchal society. A sheikh from the prominent Al-Azhar Institution issued a fatwa encouraging the rape of women during protests.
During Friday’s protests and on the front lines during clashes, women roamed amongst their male counterparts, asserting their resolve and participation in Egypt’s ongoing revolution will remain.
Jihan Hafiz for The Real News, Cairo, Egypt.
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