I originally published this article on Tea and Toast at http://www.teaandtoast.ie/?p=98.
The Editor left this note: This article contains upsetting and disturbing information. If, like myself, you feel personally moved by its content, send an email of protest to firstname.lastname@example.org and I will insure that these letters will be sent to Amnesty International.
No one knows what became of the woman in the red shirt. No one knows if she is even still alive. The descriptions of what people witnessed are hard to read, and harder to stomach. A sea of hostile faces forced her off Tahrir Square and onto a side street, and not even the clamour of a 200-strong mob could drown out her terrified screams, which grew fainter until she collapsed while a swarm of grasping hands crushed her against a wall and tore at her slender frame.
Tahrir Square was the epicentre of the Egyptian revolution that toppled Mubarack. It is a symbol for freedom, hope, defiance – and sexual assault. An American journalist was assaulted there even on the night that the Egyptians celebrated Mubarack’s resignation, and during the pro-democracy protests, sexual assaults on female protestors were common. Even now that Mubarack is facing life in prison and as Egypt is preparing for the final round of its presidential election later this month, despicable mob-led sexual assaults on women are on the increase.
On Friday, 50 brave women marched to demand an end to these assaults, which are carried out with sickening impunity. A large group of men joined them, encircling them and joining hands to protect the women as they marched. It was not enough. Hundreds of men attacked the group, overpowering the men and abusing the women.
It’s not clear who is behind these attacks. The mob nature suggests they are organised, and what is clear is that they are carried out without consequence. Many believe that the attacks are an attempt by the military to quash the pro-democracy movement, of which women were once 50% of the participants, and led to prominent women at the time writing of the “new Egypt” they experienced at the time, in which they had active roles to play, for which they were valued. That “new Egypt” seems to have given way to a culture of rape and fear.
Ahmed Mansour, a 22 year-old male medical student who took part in the march on Friday commented “Some people think it is targeted to make women hate coming here.”
Sexual abuse is a powerful weapon of war. If 50% of a movement can be intimidated out of further participation the movement will be severely compromised. The assaults on Friday took place during a larger march against Mubarack’s former prime minister, who is now running for election. In a conservative country such as Egypt, sexual assaults are particularly damaging – the victims are unfairly seen to have been sullied by the attack and face social stigma and isolation. Even after the attack finishes, there are social and psychological damages that are harder to heal than physical wounds.
One of the most harrowing scenes of the eighteen days’ revolution was a recording of a woman being stripped to the waist by a group of soldiers, and then being dragged along the ground by her arms while soldiers stamped on her bare chest and laughed. I saw this clip and the horror of it is difficult to put into words. 10,000 women protested in Cairo the following day. That only 50 women marched on Friday suggests that a strong culture of fear has already taken hold.
The attacks may be an organised attempt to quash the pro-democracy movement. It may be that female emancipation is now seen as another ‘western thing’ that the Mubarack’s tried to impose on the country and that these attacks are an attempt to force women back into the home. The lawlessness and turmoil that follows a revolution will always be bad for women. But what is happening to the women in Egypt is horrific and entirely unacceptable.
The international community must act on behalf of these protestors, and the will to act starts with us. A letter takes five minutes to write and send – that’s a third of the time that the red-shirted woman’s ordeal lasted before anyone could come to her aid.
A report in 2008 found that over two-thirds of Egyptian women experienced sexual harassment on a daily basis. That harassment is endemic; and that the Tahrir Square attacks have been allowed to continue for this long clearly point to a sickening lack of political will by the Islamist-dominated Egyptian parliament to stop them.
But it is not acceptable to allow this kind of violence against women. A country in which mobs can carry out violent and degrading attacks is a country that will self-destruct. This is a human issue, not a “women’s issue,” – an issue that will decide the future stability and prosperity of Egypt.