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Column: Despite risk of assault and rape, women make voices heard in Cairo

Only one woman sat among the 14 people who flanked General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi on Egyptian state television as he announced Egypt’s new constitutional order. In President Mohammed Morsi’s cabinet, there were two – out of 24 people. Over the past few days, in other words, Egyptian women have been asked to take sides between two organizations in which women are almost entirely marginalized: the Muslim Brotherhood and the Egyptian army.

And yet, whenever there are protests, there are women in Tahrir Square – lots of them. They know the drill. They have seen the videos on YouTube. They know the risks they take when they go down there. During the day, there are usually families in the square – little girls on their mothers’ shoulders, grandmothers.

But at night, when the families leave, the harassment begins.

Harassment is actually a gentle, almost euphemistic way to describe it. At least 80 women were assaulted Wednesday night in the square as the crowd celebrated Morsi’s ouster and the army’s takeover. And yet, Thursday morning they were still there.

A week ago, before the June 30 protests, everyone hoped, as they do before any large demonstration in Tahrir since the revolution, that this time would be different – that the men who surround women, cut off their clothes, and attack them in groups and from every angle, many while pretending to rescue them, would stay home. But if they ventured the hope, they also prepared for the worst.

In the week leading up to June 30, Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment, Tahrir Bodyguard and other organizations held trainings in their central Cairo offices on how to intervene in instances of mob sexual assaults. These groups document cases ranging from sexual harassment to assault to rape. Men and women would show up, volunteers still in their work clothes, and stay long into the night to undergo training for the day itself.

By the Friday before the planned uprisings, there had already been 12 assaults in Tahrir. Wednesday night saw the largest number of reported assaults since these organizations began documenting them.

Overwhelming problem

Although there are many volunteers, and more at every demonstration than at the last, the scope of the problem is overwhelming and diffused across a wide and densely crowded area. “The problem is that the cases are all over the place,” said Mariam Kirollos, a core team member of OpAntiSH. Because of the large number of volunteers of both genders, they are often able to intervene at a very early stage. But there are so many attacks, and the square so large, and the crush of people so dense, that they are far more often unable to reach people who need them.

Both OpAntiSH and Tahrir Bodyguard maintain an active presence on Twitter and Facebook, advising women and men which parts of the square and which metro exits to avoid. Meanwhile a group called Harassmap maintains a map of where the assaults take place. When Tahrir is full, it is impossible to move without coming into contact with other bodies and impossible to see what is happening only feet away. As a result, it is often difficult to access women who are being assaulted to bring them to safety. It becomes a crowd-sourced effort. Activists pass out flyers in Tahrir explaining to bystanders what to do if they witness assaults and, more broadly, the need to change the culture that allows them to happen. Wednesday night, they even called on those who had access to apartments overlooking the square to try to identify instances of assault from above. Because the attacks can involve many assailants, it is actually possible to spot them aerially. One volunteer reported an assault in which as many as 400 people were involved, some participating while others looked on. “Maybe they’re organized,” said Kirollos, “but definitely there are people who join in.”

Activist groups sometimes have to step in even when it seems that the survivor should be in safe hands: OpAntiSH tweeted that its activists had intervened in a case where a survivor was about to undergo a “virginity test” by a female doctor in a police booth inside the Tahrir metro station. Military officers used these so-called tests against female protesters under the SCAF’s previous tenure as rulers of Egypt.

As far as activists are aware, no one has been arrested or even charged in connection with these gang assaults.

In recent days, Muslim Brotherhood members have contrasted the lack of sexual harassment at their pro-Morsi protests with the assaults in Tahrir. They have a point. But at the Brotherhood protests, there were far fewer women present overall. And activists respond that there were many mob assaults documented during the jubilation in Tahrir Square when Morsi took office a year ago.

Delegitimizing protesters

Moreover, on the question of women’s rights, the relative absence of sexual assault at Brotherhood protests is about the only thing one can say for the Brotherhood just now. Morsi’s government fumbled at every turn.

As recently as June 30, the Ministry of Health shared a survivor’s name, hospital, and details of the assault with the newspaper of the Freedom and Justice Party (the Muslim Brotherhood’s political party) while also citing instances of sexual assault in the square in an attempt to delegitimize the protesters there. In March, they opposed a document on violence against women issued by the United Nations, and they consistently refer to female genital mutilation, a widespread practice in Egypt, as a sanctioned cultural practice.

General Adel Afifi, a member of a Salafi party allied with the Brotherhood who serves on the Shura Council’s human rights committee, in a statement that has now become legend among the activist community, declared: “Girls who join the protests do so knowing they are in the middle of thugs and street types. She must protect herself before asking the Ministry of Interior to do so. Sometimes a girl contributes 100 percent to her rape because she puts herself in those circumstances.”

Given comments like this and, more broadly, the risks each woman takes consciously when she enters the square, it says something about the strength of women’s conviction of their right to participate fully in public discourse and political life that they keep showing up.

(Laura Dean is a freelance journalist based in Cairo.)

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