[TW for the discussion of Sexual Assault] “These girls who were detained were not like your daughter or mine,” an unidentified general was quoted as saying while discussing the sexual assault of seven women at a military prison in Northeast Cairo.
Women who had been subjected to “virginity tests” last March to prove they weren’t “pure.” These tests, the general reasoned, proved the women were immoral and, therefore, couldn’t say they’d been raped or assaulted while in custody. Such flagrant (not to mention, illogical) dehumanization of female revolutionaries, while incredibly disturbing, is not completely unheard of in the Egyptian prison system. However, as we’ve seen in the past few weeks, this attitude is also extending to women on the ground. In broad daylight, the women of Tahrir Square are being routinely subjected to assault not just by Egyptian police and security forces, but by private citizens as well.
It is hard enough to rise up against a dictator, harder still to take on the counter-revolution of military rule. But for the women of Egypt, and the female reporters sent to cover the story, it is not rubber bullets, but the simple right to walk without violent sexual assault that has become the paramount concern for their safety. They are doing the revolution backwards and in heels while the Egyptian police and gangs of opportunistic men target them as prey.
Most notably, Mona Eltahawy, an Egyptian-American writer and activist, shared her story on how she was assaulted by the Egyptian police. Recently released from custody with a broken arm and broken hand, she told of her experience in a series of tweets:
“5 or 6 surrounded me, groped and prodded my breasts, grabbed my genital area and I lost count how many hands tried to get into my trousers. They are dogs and their bosses are dogs. Fuck the Egyptian police.”
A number of disturbing tales recounting the sexual punishment of women have come to light since the second wave of protests began. Bothaina Kamel, a presidential candidate who is publicly opposed to military rule, told of her own sexual assault when she went to join the protest in Tahrir Sq. She was fondled, beaten and surrounded by guards, some of whom even recognized her and voiced concern that she “would tell.” This assault did not stop her from later returning to the Square to protest further, although no doubt the experience has left it’s mark.
However, it must be said that as awful as these assaults are, it is the indifference of many average male revolutionary that many find most upsetting. Most of these assaults have taken place in broad daylight in crowds of hundreds, if not thousands, and such actions require a disturbing level of complicity. Last week, a march was led by hundreds of Egyptian women to show that they were in the revolution to stay. One woman explained that attitudes of men were the most difficult to change. That many expected women to fade back into domestic roles after the initial fall of Mubarak. The refusal of many women to do so has led to increased tensions.
The escalating violence against women has gotten so intense, that after an assault of French journalist Caroline Sinz last Thursday, who was attacked by men in civilian clothes near Tahrir, Reporters Without Boarders actually issued a call to editors to stop sending female journalists to Egypt. This sent outrage through the journalistic community and many were shocked that, rather than condemn the assaults, the French-based organization would instead council editors to just stop using women.
The call was overturned within a few hours, however, that it was issued at all has sparked a conversation amongst female journalists, who already struggle against a male-dominated industry. Despite the fact that women in conflict zones are an incredible asset, able to speak to locals and gain access to homes in a way that male journalists often cannot, their safety and ability to protect themselves is often called into question by newsgroups and editors.
While Caroline Sinz was eventually pulled to safety by those in the crowd, it was not until her clothes and undergarments had been completely removed and the sexual assault had already taken place. For forty-five minutes she was assaulted, portions of it were even filmed, yet it took almost an hour for someone to come to her aid. This echos the attack of CBS reporter Laura Logan earlier this year, who some even tried to argue, should have known better than to… What? Do her job?
The hypocrisy is almost breathtaking. Here we have a number of “brave” Egyptian men, who proclaim they are willing to die for the freedom to exist peaceably, and yet seem to have no problem standing by as groups of men are chasing and ripping the clothes off of women who are either involved with, or reporting, their struggle.
Apparently the “freedom” these indifferent men speak of only extends to themselves and their fellow brothers. With such a short sighted definition of liberation, it will come as no surprise if their uprising is unsuccessful. After all, you cannot campaign for the rights of only 50% of a community and expect anybody to take your demands seriously. Especially on a global scale, where women are more involved in international politics than ever before. If what Egyptian men really want is total freedom, then they must campaign for the other half of society, too. This means publicly standing up for women who are being shouted down and manhandled by those still hell-bent on living in the past.
Yet, even without the help of their countrymen, Egyptian women are posed to stand firm on the global stage. Pictures from the protest show women forming their own groups, alongside men, ready to do whatever it takes to fight on. Meanwhile, despite reticent colleagues, female journalists are still making their way around Cairo and covering the story. Some journalists, such as Claude Guibal, wear a veil and go empty handed to blend into the background with ease. Others do what they can to take bodyguards or groups with them. Either way, the revolution cannot survive if it is divided along such archaic lines as gender.
As assaults on female protesters and journalists continue to rise in Cairo, it would serve the men of Egypt well to remember that every time this happens, it disgraces and discredits the movement. The safety of women, especially in an Islamic society, is the responsibility of the entire community, and there is no excuse to stand by and watch as women are assaulted and harassed by either civilians or security forces. Just as it is too late to return to the days of Mubarak, it is too late to return to the days of women in purely domestic roles. The tide has already gone out, and the male community must now prove their solidarity with their fellow compatriots. Anything less and the revolution is already a failure.