Trigger warning: This article contains accounts of rape and sexual assault.
As thousands of Egyptians poured into Tahrir Square on January 25, 2013 to mark the revolution’s second anniversary, the now-famous center of protests also became the site of repeated, horrific sexual assaults.
These incidents of collective violence have occurred with increasing and disturbing frequency over the past several months. In a typical case like this one caught on video, a woman is attacked by a group of men, groped, stripped naked, bitten, scratched, and raped by the men’s hands. In the worst attack on January 25, 2013, a nineteen-year old woman was attacked with a knife and her genitals were cut.
I share Ursula Lindsey’s reservations about writing about these attacks, out of a fear they could be used to smear Egypt’s political opposition—or perhaps worse, that they would be fodder for those who make hateful and racist generalizations about Muslims and Arabs. Yet staying silent about these attacks is not an option. Words like horrific or unimaginable pale in their inability to describe such acts.
Tahrir Square “is a place in which people both demand dignity for themselves and, in some cases, violently strip it from others” wrote Tom Dale in a poignant op-ed in Egypt Independent. It is tragic that the square—a space described as ‘utopian’ by many during the eighteen days leading up to the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak—has turned into a dark antithesis of this vision for both the survivors of these assaults and those who intervene to rescue the women.
As the attacks have become more frequent, an increasing number of groups have emerged to combat them. Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment/Assault (OpAntiSH) is one such organization, formed in response to attacks during the Mohamed Mahmoud memorial protests in November 2012.
The organization aims to combat incidents of group sexual harassment and assault against women in Tahrir during protests, sending patrols into the Square to rescue women who are exposed to attacks and transport them to safety. They also conduct outreach in the Square and manage a hotline where people can report assaults. In addition, the organization offers medical, legal, and psychological support for survivors of sexual assault.
Among other similar organizations, OpAntiSH stands out for its commitment to women’s participation at every level of the organization, including in groups that physically intervene in the attacks. OpAntiSH is also notable for its rejection of the victim-blaming that often accompanies sexual assault and its refusal to tolerate ‘advice’ that forces women into the margins of the public sphere.
“Our task force #OpAntiSH working on the ground refuses any imposition on women’s clothes, behavior &/or whereabouts to ‘avoid’ harassment!” the group wrote in a tweet on January 25. In cases of sexual assault, judgment and blame is often placed on a woman’s choice of clothing or decision to be present in certain places during certain hours. By blaming the victim, these arguments obscure the fact that the attacks have nothing to do with what the survivor was wearing or where she was located—blame lies only with those perpetrating these acts.
On January 25, 2013, the organization received calls about nineteen attacks and was able to respond to fifteen. Six of the women attacked required medical attention. Another rescue organization, Tahrir Bodyguard, responded to nine attacks. According to a United Nations press release deploring the incidents, the total number of known attacks on that day reached twenty-five. It is likely that other similar incidents went unreported.
The public prosecution into the rape of one woman on January 25, but with faith in Egypt’s judiciary all but gone, this is little consolation.
Several brave survivors have recorded their testimonies on OpAntiSH’s Facebook page. “All that I knew was that there were hundreds of hands stripping me of my clothes and brutally violating my body,” one survivor wrote anonymously, describing an attack that took place in November. “There is no way out, for everyone is saying that they are protecting and saving me, but all I felt from the circles close to me, sticking to my body, was the finger-rape of my body, from the front and back; someone was even trying to kiss me… I was completely naked, pushed by the mass surrounding me to an alley close to Hardee’s restaurant… I am in the middle of this tightly knit circle. Every time I tried to scream, to defend myself, to call on a savior, they increased their violence.”
Another survivor, a volunteer with the organization, described an attack on January 25: “They were pulling the kefayya around my neck and choking me and dragging me by it… I couldn’t breathe… The more I screamed the more savagely they attacked me. Right in front of me, I saw someone (I remember the way he looked: less than twenty years old and short and with the utmost savagery) cutting my sweater and cutting my bra and stripping it off of me. He kept grabbing my breasts and at the same time people were violating my body everywhere. I was so disgusted and felt sick. I felt like I was going to pass out. I was really scared I was going to fall to the ground. The shoving and the hands multiplied, and suddenly I stopped screaming, I couldn’t breathe and I got really dizzy, and I was afraid I was going to fall down and die, I really felt that death wasn’t far at all.”
OpAntiSH volunteers have also come under threat while intervening and monitoring the square. Both male and female volunteers have been attacked and/or harassed, facing an expanding arsenal of penknives, kitchen knives, sound guns, homemade flamethrowers, and Tasers. The most common frustration from volunteers on January 25 was that, even in the midst of an attack, it was impossible to know who was there to help and who was there to harass. “It was chaos,” described one volunteer working in the intervention team. “I was being hit trying to get to the girl, not knowing whether the people I hit back were harassers or trying to help.” Some men claimed to be rescuing the woman or to be a family member or friend, only to start assaulting her once they got close enough.
In addition to confusion on the ground, questions about the source of these attacks remain unanswered. The typical societal explanations for harassment—a conservative culture or pent up sexual frustrations—have always been inadequate rationalizations, and ring particularly hollow in light of the scale of assaults occurring in Egypt.
It is unclear to what degree the assaults are perpetrated by opportunists, and to what degree they are organized and/or paid for by others. In December 2012, the United Kingdom’s Channel 4 interviewed men who claimed they have been paid since the Mubarak era to attack female activists, though they did not know who had been paying them.
The level of consistency in the attacks leads groups like OpAntiSH to believe they are organized. These groups see the assaults as an extension of tactics used by the state against female activists since 2005 to discourage them from engaging in street politics and participating in opposition movements. Some think that the Ministry of the Interior itself could be behind the attacks.
Regardless of the source of these assaults, it is clear that women are being forced to weigh their physical safety against political participation. This is unacceptable, particularly in light of the revolution’s demands for social justice. Meanwhile, the assaults divert the organizing capacity of revolutionary, opposition groups that feel compelled to address this phenomenon and respond to the attacks—if the assaults are indeed organized, this may be one of their intentions.
Tellingly, combating these attacks has been left to volunteer organizations like OpAntiSH. Expecting recourse through the judicial system or from the police is laughable given the legacy under Mubarak of state-sanctioned intimidation of female activists, a practice that was continued by the military in cases like the 2011 ‘virginity tests,’ not to mention the routine police harassment of women and female activists.
As the heart of the revolution and its demands for justice and social equality, Tahrir Square must remain a safe for those who come to advocate for these objectives. In a January 29, 2013 press release, OpAntiSH expressed “extreme disappointment with revolutionary groups and political parties which call for demonstrations in Tahrir square and use the large turnouts for their political bargaining, but neglect their responsibility in securing the square and addressing these repeated sexual assaults against female participants.”
To fill the Square while ignoring these attacks shows a reprehensible indifference toward these violent sexual assaults and the safety of all female protestors. To ignore these assaults when reporting on protests in the Square is to actively dismiss every woman’s right to personal safety in public spaces.
On February 1 2013, OpAntiSH mobilized once again for another Friday protest. Members who had intervened to rescue a woman and who had been attacked themselves returned. Some of the women who had been assaulted in the Square and rescued by volunteers last week joined the group for the first time.
While the media focuses on rock-slinging youth at the front lines of the battle, members of OpAntiSH are Tahrir’s real heroes, brave volunteers willing to risk their own personal safety to rescue strangers. For the moment, they are succeeding—on Friday, the organization received reports of only a few attacks, and was able to intervene and get the women to safety in all cases. As Salma Said, one of the organizers of OpAntiSH, said: “This is our revolution and our midan [square] and no one can take it from us.”