Sexual attacks on women in Egypt

Assaults on women have happened in crowded locations such as Tahrir Square
©Amnesty International

By Diana Eltahawy, Amnesty International’s Egypt researcher

Almost every girl and woman – regardless of age, social status or choice of attire – who has walked the streets or taken public transport in Cairo, has experienced some form of verbal or physical sexual harassment.

This isn’t new. For years, Egyptian women’s rights activists and others have called on the authorities to recognize the seriousness of the problem.

There needs to be a fundamental shift in institutionalized attitudes that discriminate against women.

The Egyptian authorities must introduce legal reforms, prosecute perpetrators and address root causes, because the plight of women who have experienced sexual violence has been ignored.

Blame is placed on the victims for being dressed “indecently”, or for daring to be present in “male” public spaces.

The horrific testimonies emerging following protests commemorating the second anniversary of the “25 January Revolution” have brought to light how violent mob sexual attacks against women have happened, but have rarely been brought to public attention.

Operation Anti Sexual Harassment/Assault (OpAntiSH) is an initiative by a number of Egyptian human rights organizations and individuals set up to combat sexual harassment of women in the vicinity of Tahrir Square. It received reports of 19 cases of violent attacks against women on 25 January 2013.

Activists leading the group “I saw Harassment” told Amnesty International that they managed to intervene in a further five cases before violence escalated. Four women were assaulted inside the Sadat Metro Station and one behind the Omar Maqram Mosque.

Testimonies from victims and those attempting to save them paint a frightening picture: tens if not hundreds of men surrounding the victims with countless hands tearing-off clothes and veils, unzipping trousers and groping breasts, nipples and backsides.

In some cases these attacks meet the definition of rape, including penetration with fingers and sharp objects. Frequently, fights with knives, metal rods and sticks breakout amid scenes of chaos, where the lines between those trying to help and those participating in the violent attack become blurred.

Activists co-ordinating rescue efforts are often exposed to physical and sexual assaults. One from the “I saw Harassment” initiative told Amnesty International that upon receiving a report of an alleged ongoing attack, she rushed to the scene with another female activist.

She describes what happened: “I ran inside the circle of men to try to save her; the men let me through. Once I was in the middle of the circle, I realized that the person being attacked was my colleague and that the reported attack was a ruse to get us to the scene to intimidate and assault us… Suddenly hands were on my breasts, inside my bra, and squeezing my nipples… I was trying to defend myself and heard my colleague screaming. Her chest was bare and they cut her bra down the middle… In the middle of this, they were insulting us and calling us whores who were asking for this by squeezing ourselves in the middle of men… At some point I could feel 15 hands on me… Someone grabbed me by my clothes and was dragging me on the ground… Another guy put his hand down my trousers.

The incident took place in Tahrir Square at about 8:30pm on 23 November 2012, during protests against President’s Mohamed Morsi’s Constitutional Declaration.

Fortunately, other protesters managed to get the two to safety in a nearby field hospital. They brought one of the attackers they had caught to a police station and eventually the Qasr al-Nil Public Prosecution office.

The woman activist recounted that police officers and the prosecutor handling the case pressured her to drop her complaint, and only reluctantly agreed to file a report when she insisted with the help of her lawyers.

This type of response is typical and reflects a culture of denial, inaction and in some cases complicity by law enforcement officials who not only fail to protect women from sexual harassment and assaults, but also fail to properly investigate allegations and bring perpetrators to justice. As perpetrators get off scot-free,  violent attacks continue as seen on 25 January 2013.

One survivor of a violent assault on 25 January in Tahrir Square, a volunteer with OpAntiSH, broke the wall of silence and shame surrounding such attacks publishing her testimony on Facebook.

Her heart-wrenching account was very similar to the one above.

As she and a female friend rushed to intervene in a reported sexual assault on a woman, they were attacked.

She described numerous hands ripping her clothes, touching her all over her body including her breasts and backside, and reaching inside her trousers. They eventually managed to escape into a restaurant.

What is particularly shocking is that these mob sexual assaults are happening in public spaces, sometimes in broad daylight, with thousands of onlookers who do either do nothing, feel helpless, or try to help – exposing themselves to violence.

I was in the vicinity of Tahrir Square between 6pm and 10pm on 25 January, the time when most of these attacks were happening.

It was a surreal landscape, moving between the strange normality of people drinking tea and joking in cafes around the Square and the field hospital shrouded in a cloud of teargas near the site of violent confrontations behind Omar Maqram Mosque.

One protester called warning me not to approach Talaat Harb Street as he had just witnessed two women being surrounded by a vicious mob. I asked some of the doctors in the Square if they received cases of survivors of sexual assaults. They denied it, such cases claiming the reports were exaggerated.

Now the tear gas has dissipated and the brave women have spoken out, it is clear that they were wrong.

Activists involved in addressing the phenomenon provide various explanations for its occurrence: a culture of impunity when it comes to violence against women; opportunism by criminal elements in the current climate of political instability; systematic attempts to exclude women from public spaces and deny them their right to participate in the events shaping Egypt’s future and the lack of interest of political movements, officials and in the media.

The authorities announced a new sexual-harassment law in October, but never implemented it. It does not seem to have been a priority for the authorities. Instead, a new constitution passed in December refers to women’s role as homemakers, and does not explicitly ban discrimination against them.

Despite the violence, Egyptian women resiliently continue in their participation in protests.

Regardless of the reasons, it is high time for the Egyptian authorities address sexual harassment and violence against women as well as the chronic and systematic discrimination women in Egypt face every single day of their lives.

Posted in Egypt, Middle East And North Africa, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments

  1. CJ Brown says:

    I am worried and concerned about this issue, thus I would love to support and donate. thankyou.

  2. Ji Eun (Joanne) Lee says:

    This case, dealing with sexual assaults towards women, is a very serious issue that should be solved. Sexual assault is a common problem being dealt in many countries. In Korea, the country native to me, has to deal with similar issues. Quiet often, I would find news on sexual assaults, specifically towards women. As a young Korean woman or a student, I think whether this issue is within Korea or outside of my native country, the authorities should speak up and try to stop violence and sexual harassments. For any woman, being forced to take her clothes off or being forcefully touched all over her body is a terrifying experience. The seriousness of the problem, especially in Egypt, should be recognized. The Egyptian authorities must introduce legal reforms, and prevent such horrifying acts from happening again.

  3. Johanna says:

    Where is the police when these street attacks are happening, be it against women or not? you would hope that the law enforcement would show up whenever a violent situation erupts, regardless of the lack of support from the authorities when it comes to violence against women?? Where are they and why aren’t they doing anything in the first place? it is, unfortunately, too common in a lot of countries that the victim gets the blame, and the crime doesnt get taken seriously enough. but you would think that if there were police on the streets, that they wouldn’t just stand and watch if someone got attacked in broad day light???

  4. Teboho says:

    Just like the story of the 22 year old Indian girl who was gang raped and died later, this stories should not anger us but they require us to take a decisive action as women. We now have a number of women Presidents and others holding powerful positions in government whom I believe should join forces to come up with harsh laws concerning rape, killing and other violations related to women. But it seems these women are failing to represent the rights of other women at the grass roots level,forgetting that they are holding those powerful positions because of their predecessors who had to shed some sweat, tears and even their blood so we can have women’s day and rights today. I will do everything in my power to see to it that there is a Coalition of women in powerful positions who will also draft laws of women’s rights violations. I will not rest until every country implement laws stating that every rape perpetrator should be sentenced to life imprisonment of hard labour so as to send a strong message to men who violate us. Lets join forces and make this work PLEASE!! The great Martin Luther King said ‘Our lives begin to end the moment we keep quite about things that really matter………..

  5. Mohammed Sobhy says:

    Sexual assault has been a serious problem since fiftieth, but now some people / thugs are using it as a procedure against females during protesting. Those people are having a technic and an objective : fear among every body, humiliation and a a feel of being helpless. Unfortunately, the government is doing NOTHING at all. I can NOT feel any change from the previous regime. It became worse. Egypt is now in the hands of nothing more than animals who respect nothing or anyone who doesn’t conform to their beliefs.

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