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Sexual Violence in Egypt: Why and Where to Go From Here

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“Bread, freedom, human dignity”—these words were chanted throughout the streets of Egypt as men and women marched during the Egyptian uprising that overthrew president Hosni Mubarak on January 25, 2011. Women, feeling safe, showed up in record numbers, while men formed human chains to protect them throughout Tahrir Square. The message and zeitgeist of the movement was equality and justice for all Egyptians.

Or so it seemed: Just eighteen days later, Egypt witnessed one of its most infamous mob sexual assaults when Lara Logan, a CBS reporter, was gang-raped in Tahrir Square.

For Americans, who know Egypt mostly from tourism ads painting it as a picturesque yet generally safe vacation, or as the “Grand Old Egypt” of Mark Twain’s Innocents Abroad, the notion of Egypt as a dangerous place for women may seem far-fetched. How did a country once so open to Western standards and supportive of rights for women become the home of what Human Rights Watch recently termed an “epidemic of sexual violence”?

Sexual assault, particularly in a political context, is not new in Egypt: Since the Mubarak era, the government has been known to use paid thugs to sexually assault female activists and journalists as a means to shame them out of public spaces. One of the most notorious instances of politicized sexual violence under Mubarak occurred May 25, 2005, known as Black Wednesday. Male and female protesters were sexually assaulted in front of the press syndicate, by plain-clothes policemen and National Democratic Party thugs, during antigovernment protests.

Blogger Mohamed Sharkawy broke the silence of shame against male victims of sexual abuse after being tortured, raped, and detained by the Mubarak regime from 2006 to 2009 after the Black Wednesday protests.

Sexual-assault tactics continued under the post-Mubarak junta government. In 2011, Samira Ibrahim and six other women were subjected to “virginity tests”—forced examination under the pretense of confirming their virginity—and torture in military detention during protests against the junta government. And the instances of mob sexual assault in a political context have continued to proliferate.

During the days of mass protest this past June and July calling for the ouster of president Mohamed Morsi, local anti-mob-assault groups such as Operation Anti-Sexual Assault, Nazra, and Tahrir Bodyguard reported at least 186 cases of assault, ranging from mob sexual assault to the violent rape of at least three female protesters. Another twenty-eight cases were reported to have occurred during anti-Morsi protests in January 2013 and November 2012.

Rape as a Weapon

One might explain away the rampancy of sexual assault as symptomatic of a country spiraling into chaos. “Chaos,” however, may be a misleading categorization of this horrifying phenomenon; the term belies the observable orchestration of these attacks. Patterns show that during these mob assaults, an outer circle fends off any outsiders who with sticks and blades attempt to save the woman, while an inside group simultaneously encircles the woman, strips her naked, and then assaults or rapes her.

Yasmine el-Baramawy, a thirty-year-old musician, publicly recounted her story of such a mob rape during anti-Morsi mass protests in Tahrir Square in November 2012. The assault lasted almost two hours: “They used derogative language, tore my clothes with knives, and pinned me naked to a moving car.”

Baramawy perceived a clear message in her assault: Women should not protest. “Many Islamist TV channel hosts . . . would take advantage of these assaults to instigate fear and victim-shaming and discourage women from participating in protests,” she said.

Silje Heltne, an anthropologist from the University of Bergen specializing in sexual harassment and violence in Egypt, agrees: The viciousness and efficiency of some of these attacks suggest that they are orchestrated, that “they are trying to send a message to discourage women” from public life. The repeated use of rape as a weapon—by members of ideologically diverse political factions—suggests, Heltne believes, a “much deeper-rooted issue of sexual violence in Egypt” that some now take advantage of for political ends.

A Malaise of Sexual Assault

According to a UN report published this year, 99.6 percent of Egyptian women have experienced at least some form of sexual harassment, ranging from the verbal to the physical, whether on the streets, on public transportation, at the workplace, or even during political protests. The banality of sexual harassment has been reinforced in Egypt by a traditional understanding of harassment as a type of flirtation, or moaksaa.

While protests and awareness campaigns have increased awareness of sexual harassment as taharosh (“harassment”), using such terms to describe the recent mob attacks understates their violence.

Egyptian social and cultural perceptions of the role of women contribute to this social malaise of gender violence. Gender stereotyping in school curricula, in the media, and in society does not help. Perpetrators often claim that the women are delusional or lying. In other cases, they even defend their acts of sexual harassment on the grounds that the women were “asking for it.”

And how might a woman “ask for it?” Victims are often blamed for going out to begin with and for dressing “provocatively.” As women in Egypt have gained more personal and economic rights over the past twenty to thirty years, they have been able to move into public spaces and the workplace. “Egyptian manhood,” Heltne argues, “has increasingly been threatened as [the] traditional stereotypes of women being confined to private spheres has been challenged.”

The roots of cultural acceptance of sexual aggression against women are deep, and Egypt’s recent history has provided ripe soil for this mindset to flourish.

A History of Violence

It may be hard to believe, but Egyptian streets were filled with miniskirts in the 1960s, during the time of President Gamal Abdel-Nasser. Older generations boast that Egypt had a greater sense of community back then: Passersby would always intervene if a woman was being publicly harassed or attacked.

In the seventies and eighties, increasing urbanization from rural areas, economic crises, and a rise in slums all helped to corrode that sense of community while increasing grievances between diverse populations. As the quality of state services declined, Islamic religious groups filled the vacuum of a failed welfare system by providing services and charities. Quite naturally, people turned to the faiths that cared for them and adopted the conservative beliefs and practices of these sects. “Many turned to religion and began to dress more modestly,” Heltne says. Egyptians who returned after migrating to ultraconservative Arab Gulf States during oil crises in the seventies and eighties also increased conservatism in Egypt.

“Religious ultraconservative groups advocated strict gender roles by promoting the idea that women should remain in the domestic sphere,” Heltne explains. Yet, with this shift toward ultraconservative conceptions of women in some segments of the population, there occurred a concomitant movement for women’s emancipation. “Women,” according to Heltne, “were increasingly defying these [ultraconservative mores] and filling Egypt’s workplaces and streets and even managerial positions.” A clash was inevitable. Many Islamic religious groups attempted to pressure women to return to traditional roles—pressure that could manifest as coercion, intimidation, and assault.

Further, in the last decade, youth unemployment has soared. More than 75 percent of the unemployed in Egypt are between the ages of fifteen and ­­­twenty-nine. Financially unable to support themselves—or strike out on their own, marry, and support a family—young Egyptian men (close to 15 percent of the entire population) are increasingly sexually and personally frustrated—and volatile.

A Failure of Government

The cultural acceptance of sexual harassment and assault in Egypt’s recent history is codified in its law and exacerbated by the government’s failure to respond to—as well as by its instigation of—sexual violence.

Broad and vague definitions of sexual violence leave room for judges to understate the extent of sexual violence committed against a woman—such as Law 58, dating back to 1937. Not only does it fail to explicitly define rape, sexual assault, and harassment, But Law 58 also fails to recognize the possibility that women can be perpetrators and men can be victims of sexual violence.

But even these elementary laws in their current state might do some good if they were in fact enforced. Instead, police officers often neglect to take sexual violence seriously, interrogate female victims from a victim-blaming perspective, or, in less violent cases of sexual harassment, refuse to file the case altogether. When trying those cases that are reported, judges often sympathize with perpetrators more than with victims.

Aware that the state won’t protect them, many women resort to passive mechanisms of protection. While some women feel their veil is an assertion of their identity, for others it is a concession to a threatening environment, as is not going outdoors after dark. Yet even these concessions are no guarantee of safety in today’s unpredictable environment. In a 2008 survey, the Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights, which polled 2,020 Egyptian men and women and 109 non-Egyptian women, found that 72 percent of women who experience sexual harassment wear the hijab (head-covering veil) or the niqab (full face and body veil).

At the same time, the lack of accountability for perpetrators has created a culture of impunity and vilification of the victim. “There is an increasing culture of violence, which goes hand-in-hand with gender violence,” says Dalia Abd El Hameed. “Lack of accountability makes people feel that violence is more acceptable.”

State-sponsored violence has also caused a greater breakdown of social order and an increase in petty crime and citizen violence. Heltne explains that increased corruption in the Mubarak era and subsequent regimes “has made many, especially from poorer classes, feel powerless and unable to change reality. The result is a power dynamic which forces many to act within their boundaries and take it out on the most vulnerable in society.”

Successive governments have also done little to address the specific problem of mob sexual assaults. A task force of sixteen human-rights organizations established in 2008 drafted a bill in 2010 demanding amendments to the laws regarding sexual violence. The vast majority of members of Parliament ignored the proposed bill. In March 2011, during the military-led government’s rule, a senior army general justified subjecting female protesters to “virginity tests” by claiming that these women “were not like your daughter or mine. These were girls who had camped out in tents with male protesters.”

In February 2013, the Shura Council, the lower house of Parliament, responded to the epidemic of mob assault by blaming women, saying women “should not have been there [Tahrir Square] in the first place.” In April, the Muslim Brotherhood–led government opposed a UN document against violence toward women on the grounds that it was “un-Islamic and aimed to demolish the family as an institution.”

In addition, different political groups have manipulated the mob-sexual-assault cases for their own gains. When anti-Morsi protesters began taking to the streets, and violence ensued, the Freedom and Justice Party, former-president Morsi’s party, began publicizing all the reported sexual assaults in order to defame the opposition, when it had done nothing to tackle the issue earlier in his presidency. Likewise, anti–Muslim Brotherhood opposition groups publicly denied that the mob assaults had taken place and even accused many of the assault survivors of being Muslim Brotherhood supporters.

Taking to the Square for Tahrir

Despite the many challenges, there have been successes in the fight for women’s safety and dignity in recent years. While many have been reluctant to tell their stories and bring them to court, more and more women are now breaking this silence.

After the 2005 Black Wednesday incident, four journalists filed a complaint to the African Commission, resulting in a verdict, albeit eight years later, that blamed the Egyptian government for the incident. It also called for the victims to receive financial compensation. In 2008, Noha al-Ostaz, a young filmmaker, paved the way for speaking out against sexual violence when she forcibly took a man who had groped and sexually harassed her to the police and filed charges against him. He was subsequently sentenced to three years in prison on charges of sexual assault. In April 2013, Lyla el-Gueretly also decided to turn to the courts when she was physically attacked after standing up to a man who verbally harassed her. Her perpetrator was sentenced to three months in prison in absentia.

Cases like these are building the confidence of Egyptian women, demonstrating that it is possible to stand up to sexual violence. And with the whole world now watching Egypt, there’s no better time for change.

Turning the Tide

“Harassment is a crime; try it again and I’ll cut your hand,” chanted protesters during increasingly militant marches against sexual violence this past year.

Egyptian women have been fighting for their rights as women and as Egyptians for nearly a century. During the 1919 revolution, women walked side by side with men against the British occupation. Women’s-rights activist Doria Shafik stormed Parliament in 1951, demanding the right for women to vote and to run for parliament. And in 2011, women were visible and audible protesters in the Egyptian Revolution.

Today, more and more initiatives are cropping up to fight sexual assault and harassment. The Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights created a “Safe Streets for Everyone” campaign in 2005, and the alarming level of mob sexual assault has led to the creation of several volunteer-based intervention teams in the past two years. Operation Anti-Sexual Assault and Tahrir Bodyguard, for example, have worked tirelessly to help women by intervening to stop ongoing attacks and to prevent assaults, reporting cases, and helping victims with support hotlines.

In recent years, media depiction of sexual harassment and assault have also begun to change, and many television shows are now inviting women’s-rights advocates to discuss sexual violence and harassment. A popular satellite news channel, ONTV, even made an extended documentary on sexual harassment this past May. Waleed Hammad, an Egyptian television reporter, dressed as a woman and filmed his experience of walking down Egyptian streets, both with and without the hijab. “Even something simple like walking down the streets becomes a challenge,” he said. He was even offered $575 by a man in the street to prostitute himself.

“The state has failed miserably in protecting women,” says Masa Amir, a researcher for the Women Human Rights Defenders Program at Nazra for Feminist Studies, a women’s-rights organization. These initiatives “are replacing the role of the state” and finding creative and courageous ways to turn the tide of violence.

To Want and to Dare

Many factors have contributed to a milieu of sexual violence in Egypt. And many of them, economic and historical, seem beyond our control. But with Egypt entering its fourth regime in two and a half years and the eyes of the world now focused on Egypt, women have the opportunity to help shape the current government and influence a cultural consensus that affirms the dignity of women.

Although women’s representation in politics has improved, with three female ministers and ten women in the fifty-member assembly, Egyptian women need to continue fighting for seats. An organized women’s movement must work to reform the educational system in Egypt by creating curricula that do not portray women in a gender-stereotyped manner, and to pressure mainstream media to respect women in their coverage of gender issues. Finally, human-rights groups need to continue proposing bills to ensure that sexual violence is proportionately punished in the Egyptian legal system.

The picture of sexual violence in Egypt is grim, and the task before us daunting, but we can take courage from the victories that Egyptians have already won for the dignity of Egyptian women. “To want and to dare!” Doria Shafik exhorted. “Never hesitate to act when the feeling of injustice revolts us. Give one’s measure with all good faith; the rest will follow as a logical consequence.”

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