CAIRO - “We were a group of 20 ladies heading to Tahrir Square to take part in the second anniversary of the January 25 revolution. I was holding hands with Rawiya, a 67-year-old lady. When we got near the square, a large number of men started trying to separate us from one another. The farther we walked, the tighter the noose around us. They drove Rawiya away from me and I could see the panic on her face. I was alone, surrounded by five men with ten others around them and hands groping my body. They had knives and they were harassing me while pretending at the same time that they want to protect me. One of them was touching me while saying ‘do not be afraid, we are with you’. They started pushing me towards a darker area and I panicked. The same scene was happening all around me with groups of men, surrounded by other [larger] groups, and women screaming in their midst. I moved with the flow and managed to head to a source of light….I saw a colleague of mine trying to head towards me and he finally managed to set me free from this mad circle. All this happened within minutes, but other women were subjected to similar aggressions for an hour or even more while their clothes were torn apart using knives. What I went through is nothing compared to what happened on that day to countless other women.”
Political activist Dalia al-Aswad’s features changed as she recounted the details of what happened to her on that ‘fateful’ day, on which the Task Force on Sexual Harassment reports nineteen cases of mass aggression on Tahrir Square, which resulted in six women being taken to hospitals. Women were raped and violated with knives. Several had to undergo surgery; one woman had to have a hysterectomy.
Young women and men organize to fight harassment on Tahrir Square
The Task Force on Sexual Harassment is one of the many civil initiatives recently launched in Egypt to put an end to the “mass sexual aggressions occurring during sit-ins and protests against a backdrop of chaos and insecurity” particularly on Tahrir Square. This task force was established in November 2012 following the harrowing mass sexual violence against Yasmine al-Barmawi and other female protesters who took part in the protest against Egyptian President Mohammad Morsi’s constitutional declaration, widely viewed as a power grab.
“We are working in small groups on Tahrir Square. There is an ‘intervention group’ of women and men who try to break the ‘cordon’ that men create around a girl, in order to … get her out of there as fast as possible. People from the safety group would be waiting for her with clothes and a first-aid kit. There is also a group that communicates with the media and uploads videos on YouTube, and others that follow up [with] the girls who are rescued.”
Layl Zahra, a volunteer in this initiative, gave NOW a detailed account of a trip to the hospital with one young lady who had been harassed. “Oppression and intimidation go on even in governmental hospitals. The girl we had transported was bleeding but [hospital] staff refused to tend to her wounds and asked us to wait until 6 a.m. for the medical examiner to arrive. We spent three hours trying to locate another hospital that would take her in. Now we have a list of names of hospitals and doctors who are willing to cooperate.”
‘Mido’ chose to work with the Task Force on Sexual Harassment because unlike other initiatives, he said, it is based on the idea that women wish to confront the violence against them and defend themselves, with men providing support and help. “I’d rather not have it as a male battle between those harassing a girl and those who interfere because they feel they have to protect her. This method yields only short-term results. We must acknowledge that Egyptian women are not a weak link. They took part efficiently in the revolution and were on the frontlines even though some revolutionaries did not like it. Therefore, women will remain on the streets and recover their own rights with us men supporting them.”
Harassment becomes sanctioned, and organized
Layl said: “This wave of violence is organized,” as proven by the testimonies of women who suffered from sexual aggressions on Tahrir Square. “The first of these waves was on March 8 2012, during a march organized on the occasion of the International Women’s Day when many female participants in the march, including a US journalist, were attacked. All [stories] are the same, as they all share the same experience.”
Dalia goes further: “The Ministry of the Interior under Mubarak had recourse to thugs with cutting weapons to prevent people from heading to the Square. The Ministry of the Interior and the Muslim Brotherhood now have recourse to these same thugs in order to scare women and ban them from taking part in protests.”
Yasmine al-Barmawi is a composer and oud player who was subjected for seventy minutes to mass sexual violence, having been beaten and dragged during the protest last year against [Morsi’s] constitutional declaration. She described the current events as outrageous, saying that harassment as a weapon evolved under the Muslim Brotherhood’s rule and is now being used to prevent women from going to the square and having any political participation. “They have weapons and sharp tools they drive inside girls on [Tahrir] Square. They cut a girl’s clothes to pieces and say: ‘shame on you, this is my sister’. Forty girls told the same story. The social problem does not lie in this kind of violence. What is happening on Tahrir Square is different from the mass harassment that occurs during holidays. This is not lust, it is methodical violence [perpetrated by] regular offenders.”
Every female and male activist to whom NOW spoke said that this mass sexual violence is a rampant social phenomenon, occurring on a daily basis. It seems that society has allowed a group of ‘organized thugs’ to run loose, hence normalizing harassment and creating a macabre, carnival-like atmosphere, in which hundreds of perpetrators raise harassment to the level of celebration. According to journalist Hani Darwish, “there is a state of male hysteria and harassment is contagious. The true offender benefits from anonymity provided by sheer numbers. The collective aspect of the [crime] is protecting the perpetrators.”
“The streets are ours”
It seems that the attempts to ostracize and intimidate female protesters through the use of sexual violence has only emboldened them and bolstered their will never to be subjected again to any kind of tyranny, Dalia al-Aswad said.
Yasmine al-Barmawi has organized a group of women who were raped on Tahrir, but who kept silent about their ordeal. She intends to implement training sessions on women’s rights, and someday, to file a lawsuit against the Minister of the Interior, the Prime Minister, and the President, all of whom she holds responsible for these crimes.
Similarly, a group of activists has filed a lawsuit against ‘Sheikh’ Abu al-Islam for his demeaning statements about Egyptian women, in which he claims that female protestors are taking to the streets in hopes of being harassed. Also, Layl Zahra cryptically predicted that “certain action is also about to be taken against some politicians and members of the Shura Council [affiliated with Islamic movements] who have held women responsible for what they are going through.”
Yasmine Barmawi, Dalia al-Aswad, Ibaa al-Tamimi, Layl Zahra, ‘Mido’ and many others took part in the transnational The Streets Are Ours march on February 6 2013, marching from Zayda Zeinab Square to Tahrir Square, during which they denounced the violence targeting Egyptian women and voiced their insistence on continuous action in this field.
Yasmine al-Barmawi laments: “If only we raised our voices sooner. Why were we afraid all this time?”
This article is a translation of the original Arabic