Women and Tahrir Square – from a symbol of freedom to a reality of fear

Women and Tahrir Square – from a symbol of freedom to a reality of fear
Egyptian woman at an anti-sexual harassment rally

What happens when small groups of Egyptian women (escorted by men) gather in Tahrir Square to protest against the alarming and widespread phenomenon of sexual harassment in post-Mubarak Egypt? They get groped, sexually assaulted and violently attacked by a mob of thugs, until eventually rescued by other groups of men who come to their aid.

Sexual harassments have been a problem in Egypt for years, long before the revolution against Mubarak’s regime (Peripatetic Middle East reporter Michael Totten has some comments on how much worse Egypt is in this respect than most Arab countries, and why he would never take his wife there, despite her visiting many other Arab countries with him). During the height of the demonstrations leading to Mubarak’s ouster, and in the period following it, security forces targeted women as part of the crackdown on protesters. Reports of women being beaten up, their clothes ripped off their bodies, or being carried aggressively away by security men were widespread. Then came the case of the International Women’s Day march and the notorious ‘virginity tests’ to which some of the participating women were subjected. It seemed that public humiliation, harassment and even assault and violence were the fate of the same Egyptian women who marched in the streets demanding their freedom and rights. Their most basic liberty – their personal safety and physical security – has been abandoned. With a vacuum of policing and many incidents going unreported, it is hard to obtain statistics and figures about attacks in the square, whether official or unofficial, but the account of last week’s events reveals the frightening scope of the sexual harassment phenomenon. Things do not appear to be getting any better. If anything, over the past year they seem to be getting worse.

The first incident in the recent chain of events took place on Tuesday, June 5, when a woman was publicly assaulted by a mob of about 200 men blocking her way and then pushing her against a wall, until she was finally rescued, but not before she passed out. This story, made public due to the presence of an Associated Press (AP) reporter (who herself had to be pulled out of the raging crowd to safety), is but one example of what is increasingly a part of daily life for women in Tahrir Square.

The mass assault triggered an attempt at creating a campaign to combat sexual harassment at the square, led by activists who wish to see Tahrir as a model of tolerance and civil liberties. The constant harassment of women is a dark cloud casting its shadow over their dream, so they planned patrols around the square to protect women. One of the activists, 22-year-old Abdel-Fatah Mahmoud said: “Enough is enough… it has gone overboard. No matter what is behind this, it is unacceptable. It shouldn’t be happening on our streets, let alone Tahrir.” He added that two of his female friends were themselves groped and assaulted on Monday, a day before the mob assault reported by the AP, only that time no reporter was around to tell their story. Often the harassment turns into violence, and at times they include ripping the clothes off women.

Another attempt to end street harassments was made on Friday, June 8, when a small group of about 50 women participated in a march at Tahrir Square, accompanied by male guardians and supporters who formed a ring around them to protect them against attacks. Their signs read “The people want to cut the hand of the sexual harasser” and they chanted “The Egyptian girl says it loudly, harassment is barbaric,” but it didn’t help much as they were attacked by hundreds of men, who got past the male supporters who could not keep them away in the crowded streets. The attackers then began to grope and even molest the female marchers who were calling to end street harassment. The group of women soon found themselves trapped against a metal sidewalk railing. The attackers reportedly backed away only when the men who tried to protect the marchers swung belts and poured water on them, which enabled the women to flee to a nearby building until the hostile crowed disbursed.

Activists and testimonies by women who have been assaulted suggest that Tuesday’s and Friday’s assaults represent a pattern: a mob of men surrounds a woman, they strip her, grope her and reach for her private parts. The persistence and the recurring pattern of the assaults led many to believe that such attacks are planned and intentional attempts to discourage women from participating in demonstrations in Tahrir Square and from taking part in political life. Yet unlike previous incidents of harassment by members of the security forces, in these recent incidents it remains unclear who is behind these attacks, if they are indeed orchestrated. One of the marchers, 25-year-old Mariam Abdel-Shahid said that sexual harassment is “… pressure on the woman to return home.” Others also made similar comments, claiming that they are used as a political tool and meant to make women feel insecure and unsafe in Tahrir Square in order to prevent them from coming there.

Sadly, in a way it seems to be working, as the small turnout to Friday’s march could testify. Despite much social-network hype, low participation rates potentially reflect a strong sense of insecurity. This vulnerability was also expressed in the following event; after Friday’s assault, Egyptian activists declared that on Wednesday, June 13, a daylong blogging and tweeting campaign will be held ‘to end sexual harassment’. The risk of going out into the streets of Cairo apparently proved to be too intimidating this time – and it should be noted that blogging and tweeting are activities which can have no impact on the vast majority of Egyptians, who are not connected to the internet. A retreat to the blogosphere would be tantamount to an admission of defeat amongst the broader public.

One of the most worrying aspects of this phenomenon must be the culture of impunity in which it is taking place; most cases go unreported, charges are not being pressed, security is not being tightened, and even when an assault case reaches the courts, as in the case of the virginity tests, it ends with an acquittal and no one is punished or held accountable. Human rights organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have called for an end to impunity and improved enforcement and accountability.

This is the reality women now face in Egypt. Tahrir Square, a place that for many became the symbol of freedom and democracy, seems to have become, at least for women, a dangerous and dark place. The symbolism still applies – if Tahrir Square is unsafe for women, what does that say about Egypt in general? If women can’t protest or even just walk down the streets without being harassed, how can we even begin to talk about political participation, equality in education and the workplace or in family laws, or the dangers posed by the Islamist wave and the potential role of Shari’ah in the constitution? A participant in Friday’s march, Ahmed Hawary, described the situation tragically and accurately: “Women activists are at the core of the revolution… They are the courage of this movement. If you break them, you break the spirit of the revolution.”

Or Avi-Guy