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Egypt: Sexual Harassment as a Weapon Against Dissent?

This post is part of our special coverage Egypt Revolution 2011.

June 8 was “Determination Friday” in Cairo, and people gathered at Tahrir Square in protest against verdicts from former president Mubarak trial. Fewer remained for the anti-sexual harassment protest starting at 6pm, a clear stand against increasing sexual harassment female protesters suffer.

Blogger Mina Naguib gives a brief wrap-up of the slogans raised at the demonstration:

“صوت المرأة مش عورة ، صوت المرأة ثورة ثورة” – Women’s voice isn’t a sin, Women’s voice is a revolution.

“التحرش مش هيفيدك .. جرب تانى هقطع إيدك” – Sexual harassment won’t benefit you, try again and I’ll cut off your hand.

“إبعت هات متحرشين .. مش هنطاطى ولا هنلين” – Bring more harassers, we won’t bow or soften”

Shortly after the peaceful gathering started, it was violently attacked by a mob of hundreds of men. A storm of outraged and worried reactions followed the announcement and didn't stop even after everything was over:

@Psypherize: The ‪#EndSH‬ march was attacked. We acted. Now its over. End of story. ‪#Tahrir‬

@Zeyadsalem: I am really saddened by the news about attacking the march against sexual harassment at ‪#Tahrir‬

@MoeSolitary: It bugs them that the people are in power when it comes to Tahrir premises, it KILLs them that WOMEN are in power today. ‪#Tahrir‬

@sotsoy: Why is there a need to attack and violate women? I really don't get it. parents obviously didn't raise them right.

@Reem_Abdellatif: I've literally heard men look at women protesters & say: “What do they want? F***ing stay at home. They deserve to be broken” ‪#Egypt‬ ‪#Endsh‬

@SameralAtrush: Utterly disgusting scenes on Talat Harb off tahrir, women has to be protected inside small clothes store, then spirited into cab

Reactions during and after the chaotic situation revived the painful question about sexual harassment in Egypt:

@spelllz: 96.7% of Egyptian women & 86.9% of foreign women – didnt seek police assistance because because no one would help them ‪#EndSH‬

@spelllz: 62.4% of the males confirmed that they have perpetrated and/or continue to perpetrate one or more of the forms of harassment ‪#EndSH‬

@spelllz: 49.8% being ogling women's bodies, 27.7% whistling and shouting comments, 15.9% shouting sexually explicit comments, ‪#EndSH‬

@spelllz: 15.4% phone harassment, 13.4% unwanted touching of women’s bodies, 12.2% following and stalking, 4.3% exposed or pointed out his penis ‪#EndSH‬

This time, however, reactions were also strongly politically tainted. Assaults seem to be on the rise [ar] in the last months and numerous human rights organizations have expressed strong concern [ar] that such violence affects women participation in political activities on the ground.

Feminist studies centre Nazra notes [ar]:

تعرب المنظمات الموقعة أدناه عن قلقها البالغ من ارتفاع وتيرة التحرش الجنسي والعنف ضد المتظاهرات في ميدان التحرير والشوارع المحيطة به منذ اندلاع موجة الاحتجاجات الأخيرة في أعقاب إعلان الحكم في قضية مبارك يوم السبت الثاني من يونيو 2012. ويأتي القلق من معدلات العنف غير المسبوقة، والتي أجمع شهود العيان على حدوثها، دافعا البعض إلى الاعتقاد أنها ممارسات عمدية لإقصاء النساء من محيط التظاهر والاحتجاج.

The undersigned organizations express [their] deep concern regarding the high rate of sexual harassment and violence against women demonstrators in Tahrir Square and the surrounding streets since the outbreak of the recent wave of protests following the verdict in the case of Mubarak on Saturday June 2, 2012. We are concerned by the unprecedented levels of violence, which may be pushing some to believe that such practices aim at intentionally excluding women from demonstrations and protests.

Such a position is given credit:

@deena_adel: I'm one of the many, many females who stopped going to Tahrir almost completely because I'm too exhausted to deal with the sexual harassment

@MaliciaRogue: This increase in harassment & attacks on women looks like the little brother of rape during wars.Aims at destabilizing & discouraging ‪#endSh‬

@MonaBassel: What will a guy benefit when he sexually harasses a woman? It's like they are trying to break us. ‪#endSH‬ ‪#egypt‬

In his blog “Informed Comment”, Juan Cole discusses this possibility after the attack:

Pro-Shafiq ruffians have broken up news conferences and attacked a women’s conference a couple of weeks ago when I was in Cairo. That is, some activists suspect that the women were assaulted not because they are women but because they are revolutionaries continuing to threaten the prerogatives of the Mubarak elite. If women, then Coptic Christians, then other groups can be peeled off from the youth revolutionaries, they fear, the movement could be much weakened.

Philip Brennan takes a more determined position in favor of the fear sexual harassment is possibly used as a weapon against dissent:

The use of sexual assault at political protests serves two biopolitical purposes: it makes such protests a very unwelcome environment for female protesters and discourages their participation while making many male protesters feel helpless in the face of government brutality, again, in order to discourage their participation as well. It is a tactic of fear, terrorism, used by the state against its populace.

Merna Thomas called for caution:

@mernathomas: please dont dismiss the attacks on the anti-harassment protest so easily.There is no evidence tht it was hired thugs/regime tactic. ‪#endSH‬

In an attempt to prevent reactions sliding into the “men-hate-women” rhetoric that recently sparkled a huge debate, Egyptian journalist Mohammed Abdelfattah tweeted:

@mfatta7: Instead of venting your hate against an entire gender, recognize that women paid their lives across history for rights. ‪#endsh‬

As pointed above and echoed by various people, sexual harassment goes totally unpunished in Egypt, and even worse, women are blamed for being violated:

@yarakhairy: i don't want to live in a country where i get blamed when someone else harasses me! ‪#endSH‬

Although written before the Friday's attack, a post by Mohamed Kassem entitled “Why Do You Never Blame Me?” addresses this question in gloomy terms turning to the whole country:

Dear Misr [Egypt],
[...]
I don’t consider myself a bad person; it’s how men are created, it’s inevitable and no one is in a position of changing our human nature. God molded men with a hungry appetite, so how does that make it our fault? My appetite growls, and I have everything I need in front of me, so why not give it what it asks, and why not please my needs? After all, they pretty much ask for it.
[...]
Talking about society, I remember the time our Army stomped a women and ripped her clothes off. There were plenty of protests; I didn’t quite understand why they were so angry about it though. What difference is there between the army and I? I tend to tear women’s clothes nearly everyday, no-one blames me, why do they blame the army then, for an act they silently accept from each and every one of us, every singly day?
[...]
Sometimes though, I watch irrelevant tv shows, like the one Yosra was leading role in. Portrays how much we truly are hated for attacking the vulnerable category of women. And this is where the reason I write you this letter comes. I noticed through such TV-shows/movies, and through a couple of articles I read in hidden columns in newspapers that I really am considered a bad person. I really am viewed as putrid as a speck of dirt on a crystal clear glass of cold, ice water. I don’t understand, I really am confused, and I actually sense an urge to find the answer to a question I have longing to find out through no-one but my people, my society and my leaders:
Why do you hate me, if you never blame me?

Yours,
An Ordinary-Egyptian-Rapist

Mohammed Yahia pointed to an interview on television in which women who were harassed spoke about their experience:

@MohammedY: Dream 2 has an interview with several girls who were attacked today during the sexual harassment march. It's v disgusting #EndSH

A call was also launched to gather images and video materials from the attack. Meanwhile, the human rights organization Nazra For Feminist Studies has a hotline where victims of sexual harassment can get psychological support and help.

Also read:

Egypt: March to End Sexual Harassment Attacked

This post is part of our special coverage Egypt Revolution 2011.

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