One year ago today, after reporting during the day on the second anniversary of the 25 January revolution, I volunteered with the Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment/Assault Initiative (Opantish) in Tahrir Square to help keep it safe for women. What we experienced that night continues to haunt me – not as badly as it used to – but it’s a memory attached to the square I’ll never forget.
That night Opantish, a Cairo-based volunteer force of men and women, documented the mob sexual assault of at least 19 women in Tahrir Square, of which the worst case, a 19-year-old woman had her genitalia cut by a mob of men with a knife.
“And, when I say assault, I mean women who have been attacked by a mob of 20, 30, 40 men, who strip a woman naked either fully or partially in public and in most cases insert their fingers into her genitalia and/or buttocks. There are plenty of testimonies of women, either on the website of Nazra for Feminist Studies or Facebook, describing their experiences of this. Opantish is still collecting testimonies.” – you can read more of my testimony from that night here:
“The wounds weren’t only physical. “She [the 19-year-old] kept saying, ‘It would have been better that I’d died than live with such a shameful memory,’” Joseph [an Opantish volunteer], 46, said, recalling the drive to the hospital. The woman’s aunt said she tells neighbors her niece broke her leg to explain why she doesn’t leave the house. They both declined to be named, fearing dishonor to their family.
Later in the year, on June 30, when thousands gathered in the Square calling on then president Mohamed Morsi to step down, the mob assaults in the Square would only get worse. Human Rights Watch, a New York based advocacy group, said in a press release:
“Egyptian anti-sexual harassment groups confirmed that mobs sexually assaulted and in some cases raped at least 91 women in Tahrir Square, over four days of protests beginning on June 30, 2013, amid a climate of impunity.”
To this day, no one has been tried or punished for these specific crimes.
Mariam Kirollos, a human rights activist and Opantish co-founder, wrote in July 2013 an excellent and comprehensive overview of the problem and history of sexual violence in Egypt. She says:
“Violence against women across historical, cultural, and national divides continues to be a socially accepted practice, if not a norm. In the realms of both policy and social awareness, we have collectively failed to tackle this issue with serious rigor. As a result, we seem to be witnessing an increase in sexual violence and brutality.”
And argues: “there is a need for radical reforms in the policing, judicial, educational, health, and media sectors … The marginalization and exclusion of women from the public and political spheres will only make matters worse.”
As women go out to protest and march today, let’s hope Tahrir Square and Egypt’s streets are safer this year.
To read a more recent article on “violations against women in the public sphere”, here is a two-part series by women’s rights activists Dalia Abdel Hameed and Hind Ahmad Zaki, published on January 8 on Jadaliyya in Arabic: