Remembering the Mob Sexual Assaults in Tahrir Square

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:

I also wrote a story about it, along with journalist Salma El Wardany, for Bloomberg News:

“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:

Part 1:استباحة-النساء-في-المجال-العام-1

Part 2:استباحة-النساء-في-المجال-العام-2



Where are Syria’s Women at the Peace Talks?

Syrian women protesting in Amman against Bashar al-Assad in October 2011. Photo taken by Reuters.

Syrian woman protesting in Amman, Jordan against Bashar Al-Assad in October 2011. Photo taken by Reuters.

“Where are Syrian women at the Geneva peace talks?” asks Hiqaab Osman, chief executive of Karama, a Cairo-based regional non-government organisation that promotes women’s participation in democratic processes, in the Guardian’s Comment is free section yesterday.

The Geneva talks have begun in Switzerland this week to bring an end to the Syrian civil war that began in March 2011 and has since killed more than 100,000 people and forced about 2.4 million men, women and children to flee the country, while millions are displaced internally.

Osman says that “as is so often the case in such conflicts, women have been disproportionately affected by the fighting in Syria – women and children make up three quarters of the refugees in Jordanian camps.”

Jordan hosts the second largest number of Syrian refugees after Lebanon. Egypt hosts the fifth largest.

Despite this, “Syrian’s women’s voices will rarely be heard, if at all, during the Geneva II peace talks. One thing all delegations have in common – whether the Syrian government, the Syrian opposition, or the UN – is the complete absence of women.”

This goes against a joint statement put out by Syrian women, through UN Women on January 13, setting out their demands and priorities for Syrian women’s participation in the peace process.

In a list of demands they: urge the UN to uphold commitments on the status of women in armed conflict and that parties in the conflict guarantee the active participation of women in negotiations; the inclusion of representatives from the women’s movement and civil society in the negotiation as monitors, and appointing a gender advisor to the mediation team.

“Syrian women are paying a heavy price as a result of the current situation. No less than 80% of refugees or the internally displaced are women and children. Large numbers of women have been detained, kidnapped or have disappeared,” the statement said.

The nearly 50 women from within and outside Syria who participated in the UN Women conference alongside the Dutch government put out this video calling for peace and a voice in the peace process.

Women of Syria appeal for peace 

This echoes the demands of Syrian women from civil society organisations in Syria as set out and documented in a report published this week by Integrity, a London-based research consultancy for organisations working in conflict environments. It has offices in Lebanon, South Sudan and Pakistan.

The summary report, entitled Syrian Women’s NGOs and Geneva II, says that there is “considerable scepticism regarding the conference’s likely outcomes among Syrian civil society and women’s groups, which has been made worse by their exclusion from Geneva II.”

Only the National Coalition [the main, Western-backed Syrian opposition group] and the National Coordination Body for Democratic Change [the international Syrian opposition’s main umbrella group] have been invited to act as representatives of the Syrian opposition, excluding civil society groups. “For Syrian women’s groups, the National Coalition is even less apt to play the role of their representative due in part to poor female representation,” the report’s press release says.

Integrity provides an overview of the current situation of women’s NGOs throughout Syria with information collected in November and December 2013 and updated in January 2014.

Women’s participation in the Syrian public sphere “has long been weak”, the report says. Before the 2011 uprising, women held just 12% of parliamentary seats and 6% of ministerial positions in the Syrian Government. According to UNICEF, female labour force participation in 2009 was just 21%.

One exception the report finds is that Syrian Kurdish women’s organisations have been able to participate more in local politics and society, and have historically been involved in the political opposition, due in part to the oppression they faced by the regime.

Through its assessment of other transition processes it argues, “considerable empirical evidence demonstrates that the involvement of women helps create more sustainable outcomes in peace processes.”

The report concludes: “The value of including women in the peace process is not just about empowering them and addressing relevant rights issues, rather it is about the broader message they bring, which is to create a transitional process that encourages diversity and symbolises an inclusive, pluralistic civil state.”

Some of the difficulties Syrian women face, especially those in refugee camps, is highlighted in a story today in the Guardian’s “Modern-day slavery in focus” section.

The article Syrian women in Jordan at risk of sexual exploitation at refugee camps tells the story of female Syrian refugees who are at risk of exploitation and struggling to survive in a country where they are not allowed to work. Here is an extract:

“Aaliyah came to Jordan alone from Syria, fleeing the war but leaving her family behind. She married a Jordanian man who promised to look after her. But she has come to regret her decision.

“I was a virgin before I married, but after three months he got bored and divorced me. I cannot go back home to my family and tell them what has happened, I feel ashamed,” she admits. Now she works as an escort and sends some of her earnings to her family in Damascus. “I give them money every month, which helps them, but I do not tell them what I do. They think I am studying.”

With no women involved in the peace process, how can a genuinely inclusive settlement be reached? How can those women, who have been protesting and active throughout the uprising and war, and paying a heavy price, make their voices heard?













Why Can’t Egypt’s Women Work at the State Council?

A battle of sorts is taking place between the National Council for Women and State Council, a judicial body, regarding the appointment of female graduates to the judiciary.

Female university graduates applying for the position of  “deputy assistant” at the State Council, which resolves administrative disputes between individuals and the government, have found that the positions are limited to men only, according to reports in Egyptian daily newspaper Al-Shorouk yesterday and today.

The National Council for Women has condemned the State Council saying that it conflicts with the 2014 constitution, passed in a referendum just last week, which states in Article 11 that women and men have equal political, economic, social and cultural rights, and the state will guarantee women’s appointment in judicial bodies without discrimination.

Fifty-percent of voters in the 2014 constitution were women.

This issue goes back to 2010 when the general assembly of the State Council’s advisers and the general assembly of Council’s judges club, refused the appointment of women to the State Council, and delayed discussion of the issue to an unspecified date, Al-Shorouk reports. They said women weren’t qualified for the position, Shorouk adds.

Mervat Tallawy, head of the state-appointed National Council for Women, has threatened to take legal action if the State Council refuses to appoint the women, Shorouk said. Members of one of the highest bodies within the State Council responded by saying Tallawy was interfering inappropriately and have threatened action against her in return.

Al-Shorouk reports today that the final decision on the appointment of the women is awaiting a meeting by the general assembly of the State Council’s advisers.



Egypt’s Post-Jan 25 Feminism

This feminist poster appeared in Cairo after the December 2011 Blue Bra incident in which military officers were seen dragging a veiled young woman through Tahrir Square during a protest revealing her blue bra. It galvanised thousands of Egyptians calling on the then ruling military to step down. Poster was designed by Egyptian cartoonist Andeel.

This feminist poster appeared in Cairo after the December 2011 Blue Bra incident in which military officers were seen dragging and beating a veiled young woman through Tahrir Square during a protest revealing her blue bra. It galvanised thousands of Egyptian women calling on the then ruling military to step down. Poster was designed by Egyptian cartoonist Andeel.

My first blog post “Adly Mansour Salutes Egypt’s Women” generated a discussion on Twitter about the use of old regime tactics and supposedly liberal concerns with feminism and women’s rights to gloss over and push through a police state.

Cressida Trew, an actress and filmmaker who was part of the team that produced the Oscar-nominated documentary about Egypt’s 2011 uprising The Square, is critical of efforts to promote women’s rights that are divorced from a broader concern with and commitment to social justice for all.

She argues that one of the gains of the January 25 uprising was a “young anti-regime women’s movement” that “made the link between the counter-revolution and instinctive misogyny”.

Here are her comments on Twitter earlier today:

Cressida Trew@dadatrew

‪@degner ‪@leloveluck ‪@nadinemarroushi Use of ‘liberal’ concern for ‘women’s rights’ to legitimise police state = classic Mubarak tactic


‪@degner ‪@leloveluck ‪@nadinemarroushi One of the incredible gains of ‪#Jan25 mvt  was the birth of a young anti-regime women’s movement


‪@degner ‪@leloveluck ‪@nadinemarroushi which emerged after ‘blue-bra’ in late 2011 & made link b/ween counter-rev &  instinctive misogyny clear

(The ‘Girl In The Blue Bra’ was an incident in December 2011 when a veiled young woman was dragged and beaten by Egyptian military officers during a protest in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. It became a rallying cry for several thousand Egyptian women, who marched in the country’s capital demanding the end of military rule.


‪@degner ‪@leloveluck ‪@nadinemarroushi on Int Women’s day in March 2011 there was a tiny march in Tahrir of older generation of feminists


‪@degner ‪@leloveluck ‪@nadinemarroushi … Whose main gains were pushing through legislation under Mubarak,  which Suzanne [Mubarak] coopted for PR


‪@degner ‪@leloveluck ‪@nadinemarroushi The march was attacked by thugs but young rev women didnt identify with the old generation o/feminists


‪@degner ‪@leloveluck ‪@nadinemarroushi feminism felt like an old regime single issue tactic distracting from Bread,  freedom,  social Justice


‪@degner ‪@leloveluck ‪@nadinemarroushi March 2012 Int Womens Day streets were filled w/completely different crowd: rev women reclaiming it.


‪@degner ‪@leloveluck ‪@nadinemarroushi OpAntiSH & other radical groups of  rev action vs violence against women born out of new movement.

(OpAntish is the Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment/Assault Initiative that “aims to combat sexual harassment incidents and collective sexual assaults that women face in squares during sit-ins, protests and clashes in the perimeter of Tahrir Square.”


‪@degner ‪@leloveluck ‪@nadinemarroushi better articles for women in constitution = good,  but I see it as return to Mubarakite feminism


‪@degner ‪@leloveluck ‪@nadinemarroushi A counter-revolution vs Jan25 feminism which sees social justice structurally linked to women’s rights.


‪@degner ‪@leloveluck ‪@nadinemarroushi and is a completely different crowd from a completely different generation to writers of constitution.


‪@degner ‪@leloveluck ‪@nadinemarroushi  I’m not accusing women who worked on/constitution of being Mubarakite but their use =old regime tactic


‪@degner ‪@leloveluck ‪@nadinemarroushi Meaningful rights for women will only ever come out of anti-oppressive-regime struggle 4 social justice


‪@degner ‪@leloveluck ‪@nadinemarroushi Difference in tactics b/ween older & younger generations o/activists on working w/regime rages on

Cressida’s comments generated a discussion with other Twitter users.

‪@forsoothsayer is skeptical and said that calling what happened after January 25 a “movement is a bit of a stretch.” It was more “like 10 women.”

To which @dadatrew responded: “I disagree – we saw the numbers in the street -  It was a significant shift &  a first”.

The conversation continued:


‪@dadatrew ‪@degner ‪@leloveluck ‪@nadinemarroushi couple marches and nothing since then. the country has no decent women’s movement.


‪@forsoothsayer ‪@degner ‪@leloveluck ‪@nadinemarroushi True,  but beginnings are often small and fitful,  plus there is a v active avant garde


‪@forsoothsayer ‪@degner ‪@leloveluck ‪@nadinemarroushi There was a paradigm shift,  and I believe paradigms don’t shift with out making waves


‪@dadatrew ‪@degner ‪@leloveluck ‪@nadinemarroushi sorry, i don’t detect anything of the sort, avant garde or otherwise. wish i did.


‪@forsoothsayer ‪@degner ‪@leloveluck ‪@nadinemarroushi You don’t have to detect them,  they’re there and working.


‪@dadatrew ‪@degner ‪@leloveluck ‪@nadinemarroushi if you say so.


‪@forsoothsayer ‪@degner ‪@leloveluck ‪@nadinemarroushi Maybe you’re right – depends on how we think Change works & what beginnings look like

David Degner, a Cairo-based photographer, agreed with Cressida’s assessment of an older generation of feminism that felt like an “an old regime single issue tactic distracting from bread, freedom and social justice” and added:


‪@dadatrew ‪@leloveluck ‪@nadinemarroushi and it pandered to foreign power’s stereotypes, making the regime look like a progressive.

He asked: “Will there be a Khalid Said story to illustrate lack of rights? Esp. in courts, and family rights?”

(Khaled Said was a 28-year-old young man who died in police custody in Alexandria in June 2010. His death became a rallying cry to the January 25, 2011 uprising.)

@dadatrew responded: “Blue bra girl was a similar effect on a much smaller but significant scale”

Samah Hadid, an international human rights and social justice campaigner, was critical of the notion that the 2014 constitution is a return to Mubarakite feminism.

Samah Hadid ‏‪@samahhadid

‪@dadatrew ‪@nadinemarroushi ‪@degner ‪@leloveluck not necessarily, some open ended provisions that would allow for equitable laws for women


‪@samahhadid ‪@nadinemarroushi ‪@degner ‪@leloveluck Def women need const rights-I’m talking about using them to legitimise police state


@dadatrew ‪@nadinemarroushi ‪@degner ‪@leloveluck but many women’s orgs spoke out against the articles re military powers in constitution


‪@dadatrew ‪@nadinemarroushi ‪@degner ‪@leloveluck also young women participated in const drafting process through const women’s forum eg Nazra


‪@samahhadid ‪@nadinemarroushi ‪@degner ‪@leloveluck Right -this isn’t a criticism o/women’s or,  but of regime using old tactics re feminism.

Cressida is currently directing a film about three women candidates in the 2011 parliamentary elections in Egypt called “The Vote”.

Adly Mansour salutes Egypt’s women

In his speech last night congratulating Egyptians on voting yes to a new constitution, Egypt’s interim president Adly Mansour also saluted Egypt’s “virtuous” women for “setting a great example” and being “a symbol of political awareness that began with women’s active participation in fueling the January 25 and June 30 revolutions.”

Most of those who turned out to vote “yes” for Egypt’s new constitution were women, according to referendum monitor Observers Without Borders. Of the 20.6 million voters, 55 percent were women.

Egypt’s women made some gains in this constitution, compared to its 2012 predecessor under Islamist president Mohamed Morsi.

Article 11 says:

“The State shall ensure the achievement of equality between women and men in all civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights” and “the state shall take the necessary measures to ensure the appropriate representation of women in the houses of representatives”.

It goes on to say that “the state shall also guarantee women’s right of holding public and senior management offices in the State and their appointment in judicial bodies and authorities without discrimination.”

“The State shall protect women against all forms of violence and ensure enabling women to strike a balance between family duties and work requirements.”

“The State shall provide care to and protection of motherhood and childhood, female heads of families, and elderly and neediest of women.”

Article 180 says that a quarter of seats in elected local administrative councils will be allocated to women.

These specific rights compare to the 2012 constitution, which had some vague wording and stated that “women are the sisters of men and hold the fort of motherhood; they are half of society and partners in all national gains and responsibilities.”

It went on to ensure “equality before the law and equal opportunities for all citizens, men and women, without discrimination or nepotism, especially in rights and duties.”

Amnesty International, a London-based rights organization, criticised the 2012 constitution for failing to more “explicitly prohibit discrimination on the grounds of gender.” It also expressed concern that Sharia Law, which was defined as the primary source of legislation, could impact on the rights of women and be used to uphold legislation that discriminates against women in marriage, divorce and family life.

Time will tell whether the 2014 constitution will deliver and translate what’s written in text to actual gains for women be it in the right to protest safely in public squares, and their representation in the houses of parliament and in government.

Mervat Tallawy, head of the state-appointed National Council of Women, said the council will be transformed from an advisory body attached to the presidency to an independent government institution and a part of the executive power, according to the state-owned Al-Ahram newspaper yesterday.

The NCW will work to translate the constitution to real gains for women starting with calling for changing laws and regulations that discriminate against women’s rights and women’s standing in society, Tallawy said.

“How come a mother can’t even issue a birth certificate for her children … or transfer her children to a different school, because that right is with the father, or uncle,” Tallawy asked.

Good question.

Egypt's women standing in line to vote in the referendum on the 2014 constitution. Photo in Al-Masry Al-Youm Newspaper January 19, 2014

Egypt’s women standing in line to vote in the referendum on the 2014 constitution. Photo in Al-Masry Al-Youm Newspaper January 19, 2014