Egyptian women are speaking up against sexual violence after harrowing tales of mob attacks in Cairo’s iconic Tahrir Square prompted initiatives to combat the “epidemic.”
Surrounded by volunteers to protect them, dozens of women took to the street on Friday to demand a “safe Tahrir,” as part of a series of events aimed at raising awareness.
“We want to be treated as citizens, not females,” said Rasha Kamel, a 38-year-old gynaeocologist and a protest organizer, as she wrote on a large piece of cardboard “I am like your sister” in a thick black marker.
On Cairo’s streets, sexual harassment of women, regardless of whether or not they wear an Islamic headscarf, is common in the form of obscenities, touching or groping.
But an increase in accounts from Tahrir of mob attacks and sexual violence against women have raised the alarm.
On February 11, 2011, as hundreds of thousands were celebrating president Hosni Mubarak’s downfall after an 18-day uprising, Lara Logan -- a reporter with U.S. news channel CBS-- was attacked by 200 to 300 men who raped her “with their hands.”
Later in November, a French journalist working for public television channel France 3 said she had been violently beaten and sexually assaulted while covering the protests.
Caroline Sinz told AFP she was “beaten by a group of youngsters and adults who tore my clothes” and then molested her in a way that “would be considered rape.”
The two incidents put a spotlight on sexual assaults in this conservative Muslim country, but failed to trigger any reaction from authorities.
On June 2, a young foreign women described her ordeal to Nazra, a Cairo-based women’s rights group.
“My pant was pulled down by the many men and they raped me with their dirty fingers ... The men were like lions around a dead piece of meat and their hands were all over my body and under my destroyed clothes,” she said.
Several days later, a group of men attacked a women’s march against sexual harassment in Tahrir Square, assaulting several of the protesters.
Days later yet again, British journalism student Natasha Smith wrote on her blog that she too had been the victim of a sexual attack in the square.
Many believe that the recurring pattern of the attacks and the fact they often take place in the same part of the massive Tahrir Square point to the fact they are premeditated.
These attacks “are calculated and organized to scare women and chase them away from the public sphere, punishing women for their participation,” according to Nazra.
Ahmed Niazy, one of the men who joined Friday’s protest in solidarity, believes “the regime, which never fell, uses sexual harassment to repress freedom of expression.”
It “believes women are a weakness, and it’s a way of putting pressure on us. They have managed to taint the square,” Niazy told AFP.
“How many times have I not gone to Tahrir because I don’t want to feel hands all over my thighs?” said Nana al-Hariri, 22.
Women have staged protests, formed human chains in main Cairo thoroughfares holding signs against harassment and conducted online campaigns against what many call an “epidemic.”
On Friday, they arrived in Tahrir with water pistols, filled with red liquid (mercurochrome) and chilli powder, to defend themselves against any attack and mark the attacker.
Circled by volunteers in fluorescent yellow jackets, the protesters attracted attention, and sometimes derision.
“Excuse me, but what exactly is sexual harassment?” asked one passer-by.
Another tried to trivialize the issue. “It’s not that bad, they are adolescents. When they say “sweetheart,” it’s flattering,” he said, to furious looks from some of the protesters.
According to a security official, no arrests have been made in connection with the sexual assaults in the square.