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The physical and ideological fight against sexual violence in Egypt

At the core of new initiatives against sexual assault in Egypt is a drive to create a safe space for women to ensure their participation in society and politics, says Sarah El Sirgany

A woman volunteer of OpAntiSH scans Tahrir Square for mob assaults. Her T-shirt reads, 'A safe square for everyone'
A woman volunteer of OpAntiSH scans Tahrir Square for mob assaults. Her T-shirt reads, 'A safe square for everyone'

Sarah El Sirgany

"Don't go forward. There are clashes."

I and other female journalists hear that statement a lot while we are trying to make it to the frontline of clashes in Egypt between anti-government protesters and the police. Every man finds it is his duty to warn us about the dangers ahead – warn us women, not any of the dozens of men walking in the same direction.

A colleague describes it as the most annoying encounter while reporting. A well-intentioned warning may seem mild and insignificant, in the larger context of increasing violence – the real possibility of being beaten or shot at, and the alarming spike in mob sexual assaults, where dozens of men surround women and strip, grope and rape them with their fingers.

Yet it's that very context that makes it so infuriating.

That protective chauvinism and the absurd political and social rationalisation that leads to sexual assaults (women who join protests or simply venture in the streets deserve to be assaulted, or that their dress code invites harassment) are happening at literally the same location is unsettling. Their juxtaposition illustrates the mindset many women confront every day, especially as journalists: a woman is viewed as a weaker being, someone simultaneously in need of protection and prey to attack.

It's an annoying notion. Frustrating. Enraging to deal with regularly.

The best way to face it is to confront it head on.

At a meeting of volunteers organising to fight mob sexual assaults, one woman explained that women too can join the teams that will physically interfere to get women out of the invading hands. "In what capacity will women interfere?" a man asked. "As human beings," the woman answered, matter-of-factly.

For this group, Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment (OpAntiSH), the participation of women is vital, not just to provide a reassuring face in a frenzied crowd of men where attackers pose as rescuers, but also to battle a culture that portrays women as victims. One of the founders of the group who was herself subjected to a mob assault told me she refuses to label herself as a victim.

This rejection of victimisation is a notion she and others are willing to endanger their safety for. At least two of the women on the intervention teams have been trapped in mob assaults during a rescue.

Sexual assault and rape are among the worst forms of torture and intimidation. Women who were assaulted by mobs say they'd rather face gunshots than sexual attacks. I feel the same. Every time I approach the frontline of clashes at night I know I could face beatings, be shot at. It's the possibility of being sexually harassed or assaulted that makes me hesitate.

In Egypt, fighting sexual harassment and mob assaults isn't merely concerned with the physical fight and rescue missions. There are other less tangible but highly influential dimensions to it.

At the core of OpAntiSH and other similar initiatives is a drive to create a safe space for women to ensure their continuous participation in society and politics: to have the right to protest, to express themselves freely. This participation is a slap in the face of all old and new social trends that aim to push back women's inclusion in society. It's a message of defiance against the state, which is using sexual assault and rape as a weapon of repression against its critics, both men and women.

For instance, the head of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, Hossam Bahgat, said that in his years as a rights defender he hasn't seen as many reports of sexual assault of male detainees as he has under President Mohamed Morsi these past few months.

While initiatives like OpAntiSH refrain from accusing any political group of inciting these mob assaults, the patterns of attack and the leap of this phenomenon from social gatherings to opposition demonstrations indicate a degree of organisation.

The inclusion of women in these initiatives takes this ideological battle to the next level. Women's participation challenges not only a repressive authority but also some male colleagues. OpAntiSH's approach specifically challenges the patriarchal notions that seep through our culture to the point where it's even reflected in the actions of those fighting them: men who find it absurd that women too would be rescuers.

Encouraging the "victims" to speak up about their ordeal is another triumph over this mindset. The women take on stigmas and social and political defamation with astounding courage.

I'm sure the men who try to warn me have the best intentions in mind. I feel compelled to respond, "It's okay, I'm a journalist. I'm used to this. You might want to go back to protect yourself."

Initiatives against sexual assault in Egypt

Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment (OpAntiSH) was formed in November after a wave of mob sexual assaults, mainly in Tahrir Square. It includes individual volunteers and the following groups: the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, Nazra for Feminist Studies, Act Fouda, HarassMap, Emsek Motaharesh (Catch a Harasser), Shoft Taharosh (I Witnessed Harassment), Baheya, the Free Egyptian, the Nadeem Center for Psychological Rehabilitations of Victims of Violence and Torture, the Bussy Project and the Uprising of Women in the Arab World.

When assaults are reported or spotted rescue teams try to reach the woman under attack and form a human chain around her. A woman volunteer moves in to help clothe the victim, and the group works together to bring her to safety.

OpAntiSH also conducts outreach and publicity to raise awareness of sexual harassment, and provides legal, medical and psychological support, as well as safe houses that can be used for recovery by women who have been assaulted. Hotline numbers are passed out on days of major protests.

Tahrir Bodyguard, another volunteer group set up at the same time, is more focused on the physical rescue of women. Its teams consist of mainly men, but it was founded by a woman. It started giving free self-defence classes for women and is looking to expand this programme to different universities and communities in Egypt.

The worst case of mob sexual assaults was on 25 January 2013, when at least 19 women were assaulted during the celebration of the second anniversary of the uprising. Similar mob sexual assaults have been reported in Egypt in political and non-political gatherings for years.

Sarah El Sirgany is a Cairo-based independent journalist. She contributes to CNN and Al-Akhbar English, among other regional and international media outlets. She’s the co-author of I Diari Della Rivoluzione (Italy) and Mozakarat El Tahrir (Egypt). You can follow her on Twitter at @Ssirgany or email her at ssirgany (@) gmail (.) com.

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