Sexual assaults on women have surged in the vicinity of Cairo’s Tahrir Square in recent months, peaking in scale and brutality on the January 25 protests commemorating the second anniversary of Egypt’s uprising against Mubarak.
A large number of women have publicly testified about how they have been surrounded by groups of men in the iconic square, being groped, stripped of their clothes and worse.
“Suddenly hands were on my breasts, inside my bra, and squeezing my nipples… I was trying to defend myself and heard my colleague screaming. Her chest was bare and they cut her bra down the middle… In the middle of this, they were insulting us and calling us whores who were asking for this by squeezing ourselves into the middle of men,” Ganit AbdelAlim, from “I Saw Harassment” told Amnesty International about an incident on November 23 last year.
“At some point I could feel 15 hands on me… Someone grabbed me by my clothes and was dragging me on the ground… Another guy put his hand down my trousers.”
“I Saw Harrassment” is one of several activist groups that are actively working to protect women against these assaults as well as trying to change the public’s attitudes towards this problem.
Another one is Tahrir Bodyguard, easily recognisable in Tahrir’s crowds thanks to their neon yellow vests. The group was founded by Soraya Bahgat after she saw a mob attacking a woman during a protest on TV. Tahrir Bodyguard uses Twitter to quickly get people in place to rescue women under assault, and also provides courses in self-defence.
“Often these women are in chock, and don’t know if they can trust us either. We work to intervene and stop the assaults without violence, and use the help from more experienced people who calm down the victim and make sure she receives care and treatment for the trauma,” Mahmoud Othman, who joined Tahrir Bodyguard in December, told the Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet.
Singer and mother-of-one, Dalia Abdel Wahab, 39, was sexually assaulted during a women’s march and protest on January 25.
“Millions of hands were violating me… In a second my jacket and bra were off, and my shirt and trousers were being pulled off, my spectacles were lost in the melee… They stepped on me, pulled my hair… I could no longer see faces. I felt that I could no longer breathe, I was suffocating…I felt paralyzed, my brain was blank and I thought I was going to die,” she told Amnesty.
After having been dragged inside the mob to a dark street, pushed against a metal fence and threatened with a kitchen knife, Dalia Abdel Wahab was eventually rescued and carried to a medical tent by a veiled woman.
Other organisations that work to protect women against sexual violence in Egypt include Op Anti Sexual Harassment, which has a phone hotline and Twitter account for women, and sends teams with both men and women to aid victims of assaults. They also run several safe houses for women.
Then there is HarassMap, a system that reports sexual harassment via SMS and then shows it on interactive maps, which Your Middle East has previously reported on. HarassMap also does social work in affected neighbourhoods and try to change public awareness.
The events of January have had repercussions both inside Egypt and internationally. Last week, several demonstrations were held in both Europe and the Arab world against statements from leading Salafists in parliament and members of the ruling Freedom and Justice Party that women are to blame for these assaults, as they should not participate in protests and mix with men.
Although fewer sexual assaults on women have been reported since January 25, they continue to occur. In a recent publication, Amnesty noted that there needs to be legal changes – including to the newly adopted constitution – as well as a larger political will to fight gender-based discrimination and violence.
Many women who suffer from assaults chose not to report them in fear of what society will believe. But despite her traumatising experience, Dalia Abdel Wahab remains defiant:
“I am really angry, I want to claim my rights, I will not be afraid and I will continue participating in protests and go down to the streets.”