The Egyptian Revolution of 2011 was supposed to bring freedom and justice, but many women have experienced the opposite.
Female protestors at the revolutionary epicentre of Tahrir Square have had to endure an increasing number of physical and sexual assaults recently.
On January 25, 2013, which marked the second anniversary of the protests which ousted Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak, 19 women reported violent attacks in and around Tahrir Square.
In some of the worst cases, female protestors were sexually assaulted with bladed weapons which left cuts all over their genitals.
In a typical attack, crowds of men quickly surround isolated women, grabbing them and attempting to rip off their clothes. Attempts to rescue the victim only make the attackers more violent.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, recently condemned such incidents saying she “deplored the fact that sexual violence is permitted to occur with apparent impunity in a public square, and that the authorities have failed to prevent these attacks or to bring more than a single prosecution against the hundreds of men involved in these vicious attacks”.
And this Tuesday there will be a global protest against the ‘sexual terrorism’ faced by female protestors in Egypt.
Organised by the Uprising of Women in the Arab World, they are calling on people to protest outside their local Egyptian embassy at 18.00 (local time) in solidarity with the women of Egypt.
So far more than 25 protests are scheduled to take place across the world.
Enough is enough
But as well as this international call of action, on February 6, Egyptian women themselves decided that ‘enough is enough’.
Under the slogan “The street is ours” hundreds of women marched from Cairo’s Sayyida Zeinab mosque to Tahrir Square.
Their message was simple: Egyptian women will not be intimidated or excluded from participating in the public life.
The protestors – who were also joined by a number of men who stood in solidarity with their demands – carried banners of famous Egyptian women and chanted slogans against President Mohamed Morsi, affirming that Egyptian women are a “red line” that should not be crossed or violated.
Sexual harassment is not a new phenomenon in Egypt – 2008 data from the Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights revealed that 83 percent of Egyptian woman and 98 percent of foreign female visitors to Egypt had experienced street harassment.
It also revealed that nearly half of the Egyptian respondents endured this harrasment on a daily basis.
But harassment – and more worryingly, violence – has become more widespread in the last few years.
In March 2011, a number of women protesters were subjected to “virginity tests” by the military.
And following the publication of a new report by Amnesty International, the Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa, Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, remarked that: “The tactics used by mobs in recent protests is a harrowing reminder of the sexual harassment and assault against women protesters under ousted president Hosni Mubarak.”
But what’s so alarming about the recent incidents is the fact that they appear to target women in and around the protests of Tahrir Square, leading to concerns that this may result in women excluding themselves from political activism for fear of violent attack.
In response to the increased violence, several groups of volunteers have been formed to protect women from such assaults.
One of the most organised groups is “Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment/Assault” (OpAntiSH), which aims to “combat incidents of group sexual harassment or assault of women in Tahrir during protests, sit-ins, or confrontations in the area by rescuing women who are exposed to attacks and transporting them to safety.”
The group also aims to prevent attacks by “actively monitoring the square and intervening quickly in the early stages of mob formation. OpAntiSH also provides follow up medical, legal, and psychological support to women who are attacked in coordination with many individual activists and organisations,” according to its Facebook page.
If people witness or experience any sexual harassment the group also has a hotline which people can call for help.
A number of female survivors of these attacks recently appeared on TV to share their harrowing experiences – this, in itself, is considered an act of resistance in the conservative Egyptian society.
It is not clear who is responsible for these attacks or why.
While some argue that the upswing in attacks is the result of a lack of political and social will to do something about the problem, others argue that these are not random incidents, and that the attacks are being carried out by specially trained groups.
Their mission? To intimidate women and prevent them from participating in political activity.
But in fact there is no concrete evidence to support this argument. It is more likely that the incidents are a reflection of Egypt’s endemic social issues following decades of poverty, ignorance and repression.