No apologies

Egypt at the moment feels like a series of battles and struggles, separated by geography but all ultimately linked together, hurtling towards some unknown destiny.  People are dying, politicians are floundering. This post is about one fight: the one against sexual assault.

The fight to free people’s bodies from sexual violence is a global one. Everywhere women and men have been and are raped, assaulted, and threatened with violent sexual language and gestures. The motivations seem to be myriad: individuals, armies, and political groups do this to try to intimidate and control people, or simply to make themselves feel more powerful. The fight over the bodies of women in Egypt is the one I know the most intimately, and the one that I struggle the most to understand. Egypt’s darkness when it comes to rampant, daily sexual harassment has been discussed in western and local media.

Since last November, protests in and around Tahrir have been marred by large numbers of mob sexual assaults, which have in some cases involved the use of knives and other weapons against women and people trying to help them escape the assault.  Groups such as Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment (Opantish, which, to be forthcoming, I am personally involved with), Tahrir Bodyguard, and others have been working to combat these assaults and to campaign against sexual violence on a broader scale. The attacks have been focused on Tahrir but we have reports of them occurring in other parts of the city and the country.The despicable statements by the Shura Council earlier this year about these violent attacks, which were largely characterized by victim-blaming, are evidence of the utter lack of responsibility or even acknowledgement by the state and political groups of this issue.

I do not know whether the assaults are premeditated or spontaneous. Even if groups of men plan to go out and attack women in this way, there is no doubt that the imbedded social perceptions surrounding harassment contribute to the growth of the mob.

June 28th saw a big rally in Tahrir demanding Morsy’s departure from power. I received calls after midnight with verified reports of cases of mob assault in and around Tahrir. The next day, Opantish and other groups were on the ground, and, perhaps due to the deterrent effect of their presence, there were no cases that we knew of. But I couldn’t help but notice, as I moved around downtown, that the language used by people in their verbal harassment was more violent than usual, and I wondered if this was a social side effect of the physical attacks of the previous night. (It is of course immensely depressing to analyze harassment in this relativistic way, as if the starting point is regular daily harassment with less unpleasant or threatening language rather than no harassment at all).

Yesterday, June 30th, some friends and I joined a march from Saray el Kobba to the presidential palace calling for Morsy’s departure and also rejecting military rule. The atmosphere was largely festive, with singing, chanting, banners and flags. After we joined other marches congregating at the palace we stood around drinking iced coffee in the shade, disoriented by the safe, upbeat atmosphere after days of anxiety and with the knowledge that things would surely be violent elsewhere in the country. I left to go to Tahrir and work with Opantish, which was operating that evening.

Like many, I was stunned by how Tahrir and the surrounding streets were carpeted by people protesting, mostly chanting against Morsy. I had not seen so many people out around Tahrir before, not in the 18 days that unseated Mubarak in 2011 or at any other time. Military helicopters frequently circled the square, at one point bizarrely dropping Egyptian flags onto the crowd in a blatant gesture of political partiality.

The atmosphere felt more threatening to me immediately after getting out of the taxi near Tahrir, at which point it was still daylight. I don’t understand what kind of subliminal group psychology contributes to this, but it seems like there is some consensus that Tahrir and downtown are areas where it is particularly ok to harass women. I don’t know if geographic locations develop  certain reputations, and therefore bring this behavior out in people.

I started my shift with Opantish at around 7 30 last night. We did not wrap up until after 3 in the morning. We received 46 reports of cases of mob sexual assault in and around Tahrir. We were able to intervene in around half, in coordination with other groups such as Tahrir Bodyguard. Some attacks involved the use of blades, sticks and other weapons. One case had to go to hospital and undergo surgery. Several others needed medical attention. Some volunteers were wounded. The square became undeniably unsafe for women.

This was the highest number of reported attacks that Opantish and other groups have ever received and verified. I shudder to think of how many women were attacked in cases we did not hear of.

The assaults are being distorted and used by political groups for their own selfish ends. The Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters post footage of the attacks online and use images at rallies as evidence that the anti-Morsy protesters are all criminals and thugs.  Opposition forces are silent on the issue, or deny that assaults are happening altogether. Time and time again we have seen political opposition groups call for rallies in Tahrir and then do nothing to secure the space from systematic sexual violence. Opantish and other groups are attacked in social media by people who are convinced that we are fabricating the reports, or want us to keep them quiet so as not to create panic and scare people from going out into the square. As if acknowledging and trying to end the violence is what will discourage women’s participation, rather than the violence itself. Others say that this is not the time for this fight, for “women’s issues.” As if the use of life-threatening violence against human beings simply because they are women is something we can ignore until…what? Until we get another government to lead our patriarchal state institutions? Until the military steps in?

I am immensely encouraged by the men and women who time and time again have dropped everything to combat these sexual assaults, risking their psychological and physical safety and being creative, resourceful, and intuitive. I have to hope that there are enough people who see the process of social change as multi-faceted, more complex and more difficult than demanding the departure of a president or a government.

I do not know what political future Egypt will create for itself. Continued violence between the Muslim Brotherhood and those who oppose it, military intervention, a coup, who knows. I am only certain that  the fight against sexual violence and misogyny must be in the heart of the larger struggle for freedom. It cannot be tabled for later, it cannot be hushed up and ignored. We certainly will not allow it.

34 thoughts on “No apologies

  1. Pingback: Muftah » Sexual Harassment at Egypt’s #June30 Protests: No Apologies

  2. You are doing wonderful work and sitting in peaceful Cambridge my prayers are with you.
    As you say women are harassed and abused the world over and I thank you for being there last night to help.
    With best wishes
    Deborah Loveluck

  3. Thanks for your detailed firsthand reporting and for being active in the fight against harassment. It is a terrifying thing to read about from a safe distance — and much worse to be in the middle of, as you are. Stay safe and good luck.

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  5. Pingback: No apologies | quasarlin

  6. It’s horrible to hear about all the violence that has been perpetrated against women in Egypt. I read somewhere that something like 99% of women have experienced some form of sexual harassment in that country, which is an astronomical number if you ask me. I admire what you’re doing. Stay safe and keep fighting the good fight.

  7. Shocking. I think the whole world should read this. Your writing is eloquent and I am deeply moved. I live in Israel and have my own personal struggle, which is nothing compared to what you describe. I hope it’s ok with you that I’m following you.

  8. Very heart felt post. I am baffled by the level of violence. Is it because the country is in turmoil and there will be no legal recourse? Is it a method of intimidation? Could it be a method of humiliation of the weak and coward, those who are powerless? Is it a sign of profound frustration? I am not trying to excuse at all, there are none but understand the ennemy helps prepare for battle, find a solution and stop this.

    It saddens me, the victims are mums, sisters, daughters, brothers, sons, nephews, friends… How would these people feel if it happened to a loved one? It leads me to conclude they must dehumanise their victims before committing these horrible crimes.

    My heart is with Egypt, Turkey, Syria. My heart is with countries and their people where violence and injustice area daily occurence. I do believe something good will come out it. It has to. Too many victims, they must not have been hurt or died in vain.

    Old systems are not performing, corruption has reached levels that are no longer acceptable and this concerns the Western countries too. Peace and collaborations is the answer, that is what “the common people” in every country want. I hope governments shape up, I hope true morals and values come back in force. I am not talking about religion, simply a sense of fairness for all and the celebration of the best in humanity. Idealist? Surely but things as they are developing are not sustainable, time for change is long overdue.

  9. It saddens me to hear that sexual assaults happen THAT frequently. It is quite strange and surreal to read that such crazy and irresponsible acts happen at another part of the world. However it’s really good to know that there are people like you who are combating sexual assaults. Good job!! Stay safe and good luck!

  10. i am very much suprised at the lack of any kind of intervention from the army, when the people need them the most. Why isn’t any country interfering after so much of hell? Though the NATO nations are more than willing to dislevel the administration and prolong the war at other places in the milddle east.

  11. You are part of something that is bigger than the struggle for democracy in Egypt. Your actions are part of the wider struggle that happens after any political revolution, namely the struggle to change culture. Your difficult work to secure Egyptian women’s right to be free from sexual violence and harassment is essential if Egypt is to become a tolerant society. How can any society have respect for other people’s political rights and freedoms if it does not even respect the right of women to safety and dignity.

  12. Women should be able to walk around without being attacked by groups of men. That sounds terrifying. Who are these men — don’t they have sisters, mothers, wives or daughters? I hope Egypt can heal from these wounds soon.

  13. There are a lot of brave young folks in Cairo, and it is a beautiful thing to see, but the misogyny is scary…and this creates a bit of a dichotomy in Egypt. Strong minded people who will be heard, and that must include women as it is their strength that can make Egypt a nation above the others in the Middle East.

    While I hope the western world supports the efforts of the Egyptians, as this movement is not going to fade away. How to keep these demonstration of freedom and democracy for the nation beautiful, it needs to be a pure expression of the human spirit, not a rampage on women. It is disheartening to hear of continued violence towards women, especially as it is their spirit that will make Egypt (or any nation) complete.

    Egyptians are truly mighty, , and I hope this movement will be the start of a glorious new era in the region. Yes, a very optimistic view, but this downward spiral of both the Egyptian nation (and the region) has to stop somewhere, and it sure is not going to be led by politicians.

    Your statement: “I am immensely encouraged by the men and women who time and time again have dropped everything to combat these sexual assaults, risking their psychological and physical safety and being creative, resourceful, and intuitive.” This is the brave new beginning, and real men & women will change society…and as I think with everyone, we just hope sooner rather than later.

    The best to the brave people of Egypt and the region…be a positive example for the rest of the world.

  14. Pingback: New reports on sexual assault in Tahrir Square » Kvinna till Kvinna – works for peace and gender equality

  15. Reblogged this on Explorational Situations and commented:
    A post from a member of OpAntiSH, who are intervening in violent mob sexual assaults in protests in & around Tahrir. This group is saving lives on the ground, at huge personal risk. The author was on a shift for nearly 8 hours, receiving 46 reports of mob sexual assault. From here, we can’t help with that. In solidarity, we can express our support, boost their media, and look out for any invitations for international support from afar. We might be able to raise funds to transfer to them, allowing people on the ground to concentrate on other matters – although there may be political issues with being perceived as receiving foreign money. While Western journalists have been more respectful in their reporting than Egyptian mainstream media, articles have sometimes become framed in a racist/imperialist narrative of ‘uncivilised people in the middle east treating women badly again’ – something to keep in mind and be wary of.

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  19. I cannot believe that women, men and possibly children are suffering the way they are today. It saddens me to know that so much evil is out there and no one in their home country can tear them down much sooner than later. I am very touched by this posting and literally shed tears knowing this could have been my daughter, mother, sister, best friend, or myself. Thank you so much for the posting and for such great detail. Blessings, stay safe, and continue on saving and protecting the innocent.

  20. Pingback: Kampviljan på Tahirtorget,… | Häxanmexan

  21. Pingback: Egitto: contro le violenze sessuali in Piazza Tahrir · Global Voices in Italiano

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