President Mohammed Morsi’s abrupt seizure of absolute power in Egypt has sent throngs of outraged citizens back to Tahrir Square, protesting and, once again, demanding the end of the regime. Though President Morsi has since softened his grip on certain powers, a constitutional referendum has been declared for December 15, and until then protesters are bound to fill the square in opposition. Many female protesters, however, are also fighting another far more intimate and immediate power grab — the violent sexual assaults that frequently occur in the chaotic, crowded square.
“Why shouldn’t women go out to Tahrir?” Egyptian activist Mariam Kirollos shouts into the camera in Egyptian media collective Mosireen’s most recent short video, “Tahrir Square: A Safe Space for All.” “It’s their right! It’s their country!” Her question is only a rhetorical one, however; Egyptian women know the answer. (Note: The following contains graphic descriptions of rape and sexual assault.)
Sexual harassment is part of daily life for women living in Egypt. Unwanted and uninvited leering, catcalling, following and groping are all common occurrences in Cairo’s crowded streets and subways — for both foreign and Egyptian women, no matter how conservatively or provocatively they may be dressed. However, in Tahrir Square, a different kind of sexual assault occurs. Though reports of groping and other forms of physical assault facilitated by the crowd are plentiful, female protesters who take to the square often face violent, coordinated sexual assaults as a consequence.
First, the assailants surround the woman — who either came to the square alone, or was separated from anyone she came with. Then, once she is hidden from the crowd, she is beaten, stripped and assaulted — often emerging bruised, naked and traumatized. If anyone tries to rescue her while she is being assaulted, the assailants reveal hidden switchblades and daggers.
Many of these assailants are thugs with a political agenda — hired and armed by those in power to crush dissent by beating male protesters and raping female protesters.
“They attacked the girls. They ripped off their clothes and sexually assaulted them,” Mariam Kirollos says. “I’m so disgusted.”
In the past, female activists were hesitant to report sexual assaults for fear of tarnishing the reputation of Egypt’s revolutionaries. However, the problem — deeply seated in Egypt’s larger cultural patriarchy — inevitably persisted. Soon, alongside revolutionary graffiti harkening to Egypt’s regal ancient history, images of women being harassed, having their clothes ripped off or turning on their harassers began to appear in the alleyways of Cairo. Despite the taboo against discussing harassment — and the inevitable backlash of victim-blaming — the problem has started to become more and more visible, wedging its way into the larger dialogue concerning the struggle for Egyptian democracy.
“When we talk about sexual assaults occurring in the square, we’re not in any way ruining the image or the reputation of the square. It just means that there’s a real problem in our society as a whole. In all of Egypt,” Kirollos says.
Now, after two years of living in a culture of resistance, female activists and male allies have begun to incorporate anti-sexual harassment initiatives into their revolution. Unlike previous efforts to draw attention to sexual harassment or show solidarity for victims — mostly anti-sexual harassment marches that were inevitably treated as separate from the revolution itself — the most recent initiatives are geared towards intervention that will help make women feel more safe in the square.
Tahrir Bodyguard officially launched on November 27, 2012 — almost a full two years after protesters transformed Tahrir Square from an ordinary city square to an iconic site of a revolutionary movement. Once protesters again resurged into the square following President Morsi’s Mubarak-like decrees, many things began to look familiar — the chants calling for the end of the regime, the revolutionary glow in people’s eyes and of course, the brutally violent state repression. Scenes of sexual harassment and assault — and stories of women who were too frightened to come to Tahrir Square alone, or even in groups — were familiar as well.
Tahrir Bodyguard began with 200 vests and helmets, a Twitter account, and a call for able-bodied volunteers to join. Theirs is a long-term fight against sexual assault in Egypt through a short-term effort to make women feel safe in Tahrir Square. Now, only two weeks later, the group’s online and on-the-ground presence has swelled as men in neon vests and helmets patrol the crowd from watchtowers located around the square.
After almost two years of observing mob-style sexual assaults, Tahrir Bodyguard has developed techniques for exactly how to spot them and intervene. First, they instruct volunteers to reach the woman — moving calmly, so as to distinguish the bodyguards from the mob. Once they reach her, they let her know their names and that they are there to help. Next, volunteers form a cordon around the woman, locking hands to make sure that no one can get to her. They escort her out of the square, where she is given medical attention, if needed.
Many other groups and initiatives have emerged in order to make anti-sexual assault initiatives part of this new wave of protests. Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment focuses on education — handing out flyers and pamphlets in the square on how to avoid situations in which one would be vulnerable, and what to do in case of an assault. Egyptian feminist groups such as Nazra have begun to hold meetings specifically oriented around creating a support network for those who have experienced harassment or assault in the square and how best to combat it. Since the start of this current wave of protests, attendance at these meetings has tripled.
Though fighting for women’s safety and inclusivity is an important step towards equality, particularly in the context of a political movement, it is only a tiny part of fighting the overwhelming patriarchy in Egyptian society. Many still think that women are asking for sexual harassment based on how they are dressed — even though a recent study found that 72 percent of women who report harassment or assault were veiled at the time. An ideal constitutional referendum would ensure rights for both religious minorities and women, but the reality is that patriarchy runs thick in Egyptian society. Even if women’s rights were given a nod in the constitution, it’s doubtful that these rights would be meaningfully enforced. Currently, laws against sexual harassment are weak, and their enforcement is even weaker — meaning that excuses, victim-blaming and shaming women is far more common than holding male perpetrators accountable.
“Women have to come out to keep on going,” Mariam Karillos says. “That’s the only solution — to keep on going.”
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