Tahrir square has become a terrifying place for women as sexual assault becomes more common and violent. Fed up, civilians are making it their job to prevent it and rescue women from attacks.
The accounts always unfold similarly. They begin with a group of men surrounding a woman during a large protest in Tahrir Square, often after night falls. They form a tight circle, then attack.
They rip off her clothes, sometimes stripping her completely naked, then sexually assault her. Her screams usually only make the violence worse. More men in the crowd join in. Unable to escape, she often describes feeling as if death is near.
The name of Tahrir Square, the epicenter of Egypt's uprising, means liberation. But it has become a place where women feel increasingly unsafe as sexual assaults during protests in the square become more numerous and violent. During a large protest a week ago to mark the second anniversary of the uprising, at least 25 assaults were reported. In one case, a woman was sexually assaulted with a blade.
The escalation of assaults spurred Egyptians to take action against them. Several groups have formed, organizing to prevent such attacks, rescue women who are attacked, and raise awareness about an issue that is not often openly addressed. Today, as thousands gather in Tahrir to protest against President Mohamed Morsi, dozens of volunteers are risking their own safety to try to make the square a place where women can exercise their rights without fear. Police have not been present within the square during protests since the uprising, and those on the edges of it are often engaged in clashes with protesters.
“We can't be silent. We can't tolerate this,” says Mohamed El-Khateeb, one of the volunteers for Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment/Assault, the most organized group working against assault in the square. “I know it's a risky thing. But it's a fight. We shouldn't let them win.”
Sexual harassment of women is a common phenomenon on the streets in Egypt and in Tahrir during protests. Men often make lewd comments or catcalls at passing women, and groping is common. But the moblike sexual assaults in Tahrir are far more violent than the average street harassment, and, according to those working on the issue, appear to be organized attacks.
It was CBS reporter Lara Logan's sexual assault by a crowd in Tahrir square on Feb. 11, 2011, the day former President Hosni Mubarak relinquished power, that first made sexual assault in Tahrir headline news. Female journalists and protesters have continued to face assaults in the square, with attacks on foreign journalists usually gaining more attention than those of Egyptians.
But the attention has done nothing to decrease its prevalence. A rash of assaults during protests in November spurred activists to fight back.
The biggest group is Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment/Assault, known as OpAntiSH, a cooperative effort supported by at least 11 civil society groups and movements. Last week the group had nearly 100 volunteers in Tahrir during the protests.
The group divides volunteers into groups with specific tasks – there are “extraction” teams, whose members try to rescue women from the mobs, and others who carry bags filled with clothes and medical supplies the women might need after the assault. After the women are extricated, they are typically taken to a “safe house” or hospital. Others man the group's hotlines, taking calls reporting assaults and directing volunteers on the ground toward them.
Group members fan out to raise awareness at protests, distributing flyers with the group's hotline and talking with those in the crowd about the issue. They also aim to help victims after the assaults, offering legal, medical, and psychological support.
Other smaller groups have also sprung up, including one called Tahrir Bodyguard. That group also sends lookouts and uniformed patrols of volunteers into the square to help women in trouble. The founders are also organizing a self-defense course.
The groups face a huge challenge. Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment/Assault received 19 reports of assault in Tahrir on Jan. 25 alone, and was able to intervene in 15, says member Yasmin El-Rifae, who also works at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. Many of the volunteers on the ground are attacked themselves while trying to help.
In a note on Facebook describing his experience Jan. 25, Mr. Khateeb said the first woman he saw rescued by his group from an attack was unconscious. After he and group members moved another woman who'd been attacked into a building, the crowd surged toward the door, which Khateeb was helping to guard. “People started pushing us towards the metal door, crushing us hard to the extent I felt my ribs were about to crack. … People started hitting us with wooden and metal rods, others were holding knives and swords,” he wrote.
Khateeb works with an initiative called HarassMap that works against sexual harassment in Egypt. Still, he was not prepared for what he saw in Tahrir last Friday. He described enraged crowds trying to attack the rescuers over and over again. Amid the chaos, it was difficult to tell who was trying to help, and who was trying to attack, he says.
“There's nothing you can do to prepare for this. This is way beyond trauma, at some point it's like civil conflict,” he says. “It wasn't sexual harassment anymore, it's like war.”
Several victims declined to talk about their traumatic experiences. But some shared their horrific accounts in writing. A female volunteer for Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment/Assault, in written testimony posted online, described being cornered by a mob of men. They cut off her shirt, groped her chest, and put their hands in her pants, “touching me in every part of my body,” she wrote.
Another woman wrote that at a protest against the Islamist-backed constitution in November, when she became separated from her friend as a crowd rushed away from tear gas shot by police, a group of men surrounded her.
“I did not understand anything at that moment… I did not comprehend what is happening… who are those people?” she wrote in a testimony posted on the website of a feminist group in Cairo. “All that I knew was that there were hundreds of hands stripping me of my clothes and brutally violating my body. There is no way out, for everyone is saying that they are protecting and saving me, but all I felt from the circles close to me, sticking to my body, was the finger-rape of my body.”
Those who document and work to counter the assaults say the details point to planned attacks, not random assaults. The tactics are usually similar, and many victims describe a group of men surrounding them to begin the assault.
“We have noticed that … several assaults will start at the exact same moment around the square, which seems suspicious. A lot of the same tactics are used in different attacks, and we've seen this before in 2005, particularly in the “Black Wednesday attacks,” says Ms. Rifae.
She is referring to anti-regime protests in 2005, under Mubarak, when plainclothes men under the watch of police, beat and sexually assaulted female protesters. Because of the similarities, some speculate the current attacks may be planned by sympathizers of the former regime or others seeking to disrupt the protests, though there is little hard evidence to support that theory other than the shared tactics.
Rifae notes that there is also spontaneous participation from the crowd.
“One of the big problems to keep in mind is even if they were premeditated and synchronized, they wouldn't succeed to the extent they have if they weren't able to rely on a chronic problem of sexual harassment in Egypt. The participation of passersby and the gathering around of spectators all contributes to this very chaotic mob situation that makes it more difficult for anyone who's trying to help the girl get out to do that,” she says.
Local newspaper Egypt Independent reported that Egypt's public prosecutor ordered an investigation into the gang rape of a woman in Tahrir square on Jan. 25. The assault left her in the hospital in serious condition, according to the newspaper. But charges are rarely brought in such circumstances because identifying the perpetrators is difficult, and a culture of silence and victim blaming discourages women from going to the authorities in the first place.
If a woman wants to bring a rape or sexual assault case, the prosecutor will often ask for a forensic examination. “A lot of times, the doctor's approach is quite unprofessional and insensitive. There seems to be this idea of trying to establish whether the women had been a virgin before the assault, and other derogatory comments about what she was wearing, why was she there,” says Rifae.
When women try to file sexual assault cases with police, the reaction is often dismissive or even victim-blaming, she says.
And authorities aren't the only ones to blame, say activists. OpAntiSH released a scathing statement this week blaming political parties and movements for calling protests in Tahrir without providing for the safety of those who attend, and for failing to publicly condemn the assaults on women. What's more, in March 2011 the Egyptian police participated in sexual assaults of their own by forcing "virginity tests" on women protesters at Tahrir.
“Even if the state isn't involved in this kind of thing, they're careless by not protecting women. They should start taking these crimes seriously and taking steps to avoid these crimes – political forces as well,” says Khateeb