The Land of Impunity

Boštjan Videmšek

Egypt two years after the revolution


“At that moment, I didn’t understand anything… I had no idea what was happening… All I knew was that there were hundreds of hands stripping me of my clothes and brutally violating my body. Who were those men? There was no way out. Everyone was saying that they were protecting me, saving me even, but all I felt was the finger-rape of my body, both from the front and back. Someone was even trying to kiss me. I was completely naked, the mass surrounding me was pushing me toward an alley close to Hardee’s restaurant… So I’m in the middle of this tightly knit circle, and every time I try to scream, to defend myself, to call for help, the violence is only increased.«


This is but one of the testimonials of many Egyptian women brutally sexually assaulted during the recent mass protests against the president Mohammed Mursi. Nineteen of the victims decided to contact the newly founded non-governmental organization OpAntiSH (Operation against sexual harassment). None of them wish to speak up in public. They know all too well that in Egypt’s patriarchal society, that would mean the gravest possible humiliation for them and for their families.


Another one of the assaulted women says that all happened frightfully fast. Suddenly, she was surrounded: six men were coming at her from one side, six from another. With glazed eyes, they started groping her, scratching at her, tearing her clothes off. In no time, she was stripped naked. It went beyond mere sexual assault. “It was an intentional attempt to hurt me on every possible level,” says the victim.


Systematic sexual and political violence


»Friday, January 25, was one of the worst days on record. All of the cases were really, really bad. The worst case we dealt with involved a bladed weapon being used on the private parts of an assaulted woman,” claims Leil-Zahra Mortada, a spokesperson for OpAntiSH. In November, this organization was founded by a group of men and women to help turn back the tide of sexual aggression all over Egypt.


From 2008 until the present date, a mind-boggling 83 percent of all Egyptian women had suffered some form of a sexual assault, verbal or physical. Inside or outside their homes. The violence against women here has become nothing less than a political agenda. The new Egyptian constitution, extorted by the Muslim brotherhood through the president Mohammed Mursi, contains many elements of the Sharia law and completely disregards the question of women’s rights. The national parliament, two thirds of which are controlled by the Islamists, consists of 500 male and 8 female MPs. True, all parties running in the last election were required to include at least one female candidate on their list. But it was exceedingly rare that the female candidates found their way anywhere near the top of those lists.


The new electoral legislature recently passed by the Shura Council (the lower house of the Egyptian parliament) failed to address the issue in any relevant form whatsoever. “The new legislature is merely an outgrowth of our new constitution,” I was told by the activists of The National Front for Egypt’s Women, who bitterly protested the passing of the new laws for weeks. “The constitution had been drafted by the Muslim Brotherhood,” they assured me: “And the passing of this new law means the end of female participation in Egyptian politics.”


Those same activists had also been enraged by the ministry of education, which recently ordered the removal of the renowned feminist Doria Shafik from the official schoolbooks. During the British occupation, this fearless lady has been at the forefront of the struggle for women’s rights as well as women’s active participation in politics. The Islamists freshly in charge of the ministry decided to remove her picture from the schoolbooks because, in those pictures, she does not wear a veil. “Removing Doria’s picture under the pretext of not wearing the Hijab is an unacceptable approach to dealing with Egyptians. Egypt’s women uphold their right to maintain their status and will not accept any deliberate attempts to falsify history and reduce women’s rights,” reads the joint statement by the Egyptian non-governmental organisations fighting for women’s rights.


We refuse to stay at home!


Engy Gozlan is a member of the Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment organisation and a veteran fighter for women’s rights. She claims the recent assaults will fail to stop the women here from fighting for their rights and a free Egypt. On the contrary: “No, we refuse to stay at home! Nothing can stop us from joining the protests! Those streets, they belong to us just as much as they belong to the men. This is our country, and we refuse to keep quiet! We are going to speak out about sexual harassment! There is no Egyptian revolution without female participation and safety!” According to Gozlan, every sordid assault had been pure politics. “The goal is to banish us women from public life and remove us from public space. The assaults have all been very similar in nature. We are talking about organised violence against women!”


Hers is far from the only voice speaking out against the oppression. “The number of sexual assaults has seen a sharp increase, the number of mass rapes too! But the authorities fail to respond. Their only response is silence.” says Heba Morayef, director of the Egyptian office of the Human Rights Watch. At HRW, they feel that most of the sexual violence is the responsibility of the Egyptian security forces – meaning both the army and the police. The scope of such violence is not limited to women: many male journalists and activists have also been assaulted. Without question, these crimes have been perpetrated in the interests of a ruthless political agenda.


“We refuse to let our freedom be taken away from us! We refuse to become a caliphate or a fascist-run country like Saudi Arabia. We will not stand for our women being humiliated! We will not stand for our youth’s future being dictated by demented old men! We, the women of Egypt, have a past we can be proud of! Now we are fighting so that the same can be said of our future! We have been marching in the streets for the past two years! Yes, we may be tired, but we will never back down!” During the recent march of the Egyptian liberals toward the Tahrir Square, I was told this by Mrs. Noor, which is Arabic for light.


On a normal day, Mrs. Noor teaches English at a local high school, but on that Friday she was marching at the head of the column and shouting for president Mursi to get lost. She spoke to me about the increase in the violence against women, the staggering level of unemployment, the hopelessness taking root among the younger generations, the twice-stolen revolution. “But worst of all,” she said: “is what we now see happening to the women! Two years ago, we flooded the Tahrir square. Now, many women won’t even show their face in public without a male escort. Every day, you see more veils in the streets. This is not the Cairo I grew up in. This is fast becoming something like certain Gulf countries or even Iran!”


Arrogance and Silence


Farah Shash, a psychologist in charge of helping the victims of sexual violence, agrees that the authorities are the first to blame. By not sanctioning and sometimes openly encouraging violence against women, they are conveying the message that such instances are normal behaviour. Mrs. Shash, who works in the Nadim centre in Cairo, is also concerned about the organisations that have sprung up with the aim of protecting the women from being assaulted in the streets. However pure and selfless their motives, her view is that such organisations are promoting the wrong message. “It is unrealistic to expect our women to have bodyguards available whenever they need them. We should be protected by the state, not local militias! What we are seeing here are some of the most alarming symptoms of a failed state. We need to know that our men see us as something more than mere sexual objects and targets.”


Shash’s employers keep alerting the relevant ministries. Yet so far, the new Islamic masters of Egypt have replied only with arrogance or silence. “Whenever we try to debate them in parliament, they tell us that women’s rights and women’s safety aren’t a priority. They also tell us they don’t believe such issues ever should be a priority!” Shash is deeply disturbed by the new Egyptian constitution, which has officially turned the women here into third-class citizens.


“You must not fall into the trap of assuming violence against women is a new phenomenon around here,” this brave psychologist told me: “In the last years of the Mubarak regime, the police started harassing women in a very organised fashion. Rapes, too, were a regular occurrence – rapes in public! Also, we had the so-called virginity tests being performed at police stations. The difference is that such bestialities used to be the domain of policemen, and now the army has joined in. Another difference is that such violence has now severely escalated in scope. The numbers are dramatic. And the worst part is that most of the assaults go unreported. If you get raped, are you going to report it to the perpetrator – the police?! In Arabic culture, a raped woman is automatically stripped of all pride and social status. She is quite literally bereft of her future. Her family casts her out. According to the dominant school of thought, she herself is to blame for the rape. I’m also sad to note many Egyptian men are now much more tolerant toward violence against women than they used to be. We can blame this on the Muslim Brotherhood and their sharia constitution. Make no mistake: they know exactly what they’re doing. It is all very very frightening.”


According to Mrs. Shash, most of basic human decency is slowly vanishing from the streets of Cairo. The comradeship and the solidarity so typical of the revolutionary days are but a bitter memory. In her view, the violence is a powerful tool of the current regime. “The women, we’re actually the revolution’s victims. We are it’s collateral damage,” says Farah Shash, but she adds that she hasn’t yet lost all hope. She is well aware that the revolutions are known to devour their own children, and that serious political and economic change always takes time. “Sexually, we have long become a highly repressed society, and the illusion of freedom provided many men with the license for abuse. This is its own warped interpretation of freedom and also a symbolic portrayal of the real state of our society. The islamists, using the army and the police, are constantly assaulting our way of life. They are forcing upon us their values and their morality. Their minds would feel most at home in the middle ages. The entire Egypt is hurtling into the darkness. The pressures are also mounting in our schools. Soon, every little girl will be forced to wear a veil. In Luxor, many girls’ hair had been cut off. And the community is sort of accepting it, drowning in apathy. But this is something we will fight to the last. No matter what the consequences, we are prepared to bleed for our freedom!”


The Need for a Sexual Revolution


Both in the time of Mubarak and during the last two years, the Egyptian women have mostly been left to fend for themselves. Few international organisations reached out to help them, and most of what help they got had been of a symbolical nature. Yet in the last few days, the international community finally began responding to the ever more desperate pleas for help. Michelle Bachelet, the executive director of UN Women, released a statement expressing her profound concern about the escalating violence: “As a vibrant force in civil society, women continue to press for their rights, equal participation in decision making, and the upholding of the principles of the revolution by the highest levels of leadership in Egypt. UN Women is deeply disturbed by the gravity of recent attacks against women, including the reports of sexual assault, many of which occurred in the same Tahrir Square in which women rallied to contribute to a better future for their country.”


Mrs. Bachelet called upon both the government and the people of Egypt to immediately stop all forms of violence against women and to start promoting human rights for all, including the rights of women to live free of violence and to participate fully in social, economic and political life. In particular, the UN official underlined that, in order to safeguard the fundamental rights of women, »the Egyptian government has to adopt new laws and take additional measures as to ensure their protection and ability to exercise their rights.«


Yet words remain words, and decisive action is far away. Especially if one relies on the UN to provide it.


. . .


Amira Mikhail, an activist, claims the Egyptian society needs to be changed in its entirety: »The very mentality of our men and women has to change,” she told journalists in Cairo: “Policies need to be revolutionized, assault need to be criminalized, women have to be respected and protected and not made into scapegoats. The police and the military need to start protecting them rather than harassing or violating them, and all instances of violence need to be dealt with harshly and swiftly. This can be done through laws and the media and the re-education of our police and military forces. However, such a project requires an educated, active, and motivated citizenry. And this we simply do not have.”  In Mikhail’s opinion, Egypt is in acute need of another revolution. Above all, it would have to be a sexual revolution. Mikhail draws much optimism from the fact that, in the last few weeks, the Egyptian media finally started noticing the tide of violence against women. Egypt Independent, a Cairo-based daily newspaper, was the first to tear down the wall of silence and publish some very graphic descriptions of the sexual abuse at Tahrir Square. “A woman was sexually assaulted with a bladed weapon on Friday night, leaving cuts on her genitals,’ the local reporters wrote: ‘in central Cairo, in the midst of what was purportedly a revolutionary demonstration. She was one among at least 19 women sexually assaulted in and around Tahrir Square on Friday night, according to accounts collated by Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment, an activist group. Several women were stripped, and raped, publicly, as men pushed their fingers inside them. There were other attacks involving bladed weapons. Six women required medical attention. No doubt there were more assaults, uncounted.«


Tahrir’s Bodyguards


For the past two weeks, the women planning to take part in the protests can rely on the help of an organisation called Body Guard Tahrir. On the streets, its members are doing what should be the army and the police’s job. One spokeswoman for the organisation claims that the sexual violence has become an integral part of the Egyptian culture. “Such incidents are by no means confined only to the Tahrir Square. Abuses are taking place all over Cairo and all over Egypt. It is something we need to deal with, and we need to do it now! The perpetrators know very well that, as things stand, no one is going to prosecute them for their crimes. And that in itself is a powerful incentive for further assaults.”


During the Friday’s mass demonstrations against Mursi and the Muslim Brotherhood, the members of the Tahrir Body Guard were a welcome sight among the crowd, protecting the attending women from any sort of abuse.  The group had been founded by an activist named Soraya Baghat. Making clever use of social networks, she distributed video footage of organised assaults on women and followed it up with a heartfelt call for help. The response to her plea was extraordinary.


Jehane Noujaim, the director of a documentary called The Square, is convinced that no force in this world will be able to stop the women of Egypt from picking up their struggle. According to her, the ever more prevalent sexual violence is a sort of social epidemic. “The women will continue to march to the Tahrir Square to protest as loudly as they can,” she believes: “That is something that will not change. The violence against women is counter-productive since it will only fuel our righteousness and motivate us to protest even harder!”


There are several recorded instances where, when on-lookers tried to intervene on the assaulted women’s behalf, the perpetrators fended them off with knives. A number of mass brawls have also been recorded. »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,« writes the local researcher for the Amnesty International Diana Eltahawy on her blog. Like most other activists, Elthaway blames the brunt of the violence on the police who mostly do nothing. Egypt has become the land of absolute impunity as far as violence against women is concerned.

. . .


In front of the Helvan art academy on the Zamalek island in the middle of the Nile, a group of co-eds are using their day off to debate the next stages of the revolution. They are angry and disappointed because first the generals and then the islamists tried to run them into the ground. Violence against women is something of a taboo topic, so it is hard to get anything out of them at first. The mood here in this bastion of art and urbanity is chillingly different than in those heady first weeks of the revolution. It is hard to escape the feeling one of the main causes of the downbeat atmosphere is the escalation of the sexual violence against women.


Omar, who calls himself ‘a real revolutionary’ and believes that Mohammed Mursi is sooner or later bound to get assassinated, is one of the founders of the OpAntiSH. During the last three Friday protests he was there to shield his female comrades and was injured in the process. “I am horrified,” he said to me: “Every day, it gets worse. The pressure from the Islamists is mounting. This is nowhere near the Egypt we were fighting for. The Muslim Brotherhood is doing everything it can to consolidate its power. The assaults on our women are carefully organised. The aim is to intimidate them and thus drive them from the streets. They say they’re doing it for religious reasons. But it has nothing, nothing to do with religion. It is pure violence.”


Omar assured me that he and his friends were determined to keep providing assistance to his city’s women. His female colleagues were quick to jump in the conversation. A girl named Farida told me she still went to the protests and would continue to do so for as long as it took. This didn’t mean she was not afraid, for every female protester was running a very real risk of getting assaulted. “Personally, I haven’t been assaulted yet – ‘yet’ being the key word here. Unfortunately, I believe things will get a lot worse. The Islamists are trying to make us cover our faces and get out of the streets. But no way. In spite of the pressure, we must go on. In the streets, I have already had a number of episodes where men were yelling at me, making threats about what they would do to me if I don’t cover myself up. Things are turning really nasty around here.”