A few days ago British journalist Natasha Smith published a long and anguished account of being sexually assaulted at the hands of a mob in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. She described how she was attacked by numerous men, her clothes torn off while she was beaten and groped as bystanders did nothing and those who tried to rescue her were set upon by the mob.
Smith’s bravery in speaking out about her assault cannot be commended enough. When rape is shrouded in silence, it continues to assault the survivor for years and even decades after the event; Smith’s decision to go public with her experience is a blow against that conspiracy of silence. She has been condemned for “naïveté”, for being in a dangerous place at a dangerous time, for not dressing appropriately (i.e. in a burqa or veil) in a Muslim country, especially one as volatile as Egypt right now. None of this is justification, explanation, or excuse for her assault. Rape is a crime for which there are no mitigating circumstances, not even a revolution.
But the tale of Smith’s assault has raised a familiar litany among commentators and observers about the brutal nature of Egyptian, Muslim, and Arab men, many likening the mobs of men in Tahrir Square and on Cairo’s streets to crazed animals that view women, especially Western women, as “fresh meat”. Meanwhile, others more sympathetic to the situation in Egypt and the Arab world try to explain that hundreds of thousands of young men in Cairo, too poor to marry, are suffering from sexual repression and lack the means to express their sexuality in a civilized and healthy way.
This firestorm of commentary and the resulting defensive posture – to which many have applied the simplistic, least common denominator prisms of East vs. West, Arabs vs. Europeans/Americans, Islam’s detractors vs. its proponents, “us” vs. “them” – engenders two losers and two victims: women who are already the victims of sexual assault, and Arabs who are struggling to free themselves from years of tyranny and oppression. Rather than providing clarity, understanding, and solutions, these debates force people to choose sides, masking the compelling truths on both ends of the equation.
When we talk about sexual assault and violence against women amid the backdrop of the Arab Spring, we must support the rights of the victims of sexual assault in Tahrir Square and allow them to tell their stories. At the same time, we must resist the urge to raise the specters of Islamophobia, anti-Arabism, and Orientalism as explanations for why such attacks and assaults occur in the first place.
In the first heady days of the revolution, women could protest in “the cradle of the Egyptian Revolution” without fear of attack, thanks to a revolutionary spirit that saw men and women transcend patriarchal and societal conventions to come together as equals for the betterment of their country. As demonstrated by the highly publicized 2011 assault of CBS reporter Lara Logan, the brutal beating and assault of Egyptian writer and activist Mona Eltahawy, the assault of a female reporter from a French television news channel, and countless reports of women being molested and groped by men over the last year, combined with the brutality of the Egyptian security forces who stripped and beat the “Blue Bra woman” and subjected other female protestors to “virginity tests”, the safety of women in Tahrir Square has now vanished like a fading dream that can never be revisited.
Sexual harassment in Cairo is a well-known problem; eighty-three percent of Egyptian women report being molested, groped, or assaulted. In the absence of legislation criminalizing sexual harassment, private initiatives like Harassmap, which allows women to report incidents online and helps activists identify target areas for awareness campaigns about sexual harassment, give Cairenes a sense of empowerment in their own city.
But patriarchy traditionally allows men to use women’s bodies, whether veiled or not, as a battleground, bargaining tool, and reward. Resistance to evolutions in society, legislation and attitude is stronger than ever in the face of the immense changes Egypt continues to endure. The insecurity felt during this time of violent transition substantially contributes to impunity for those who assault women in Tahrir Square. The bigger truth, though, is that perpetrators the world over harass women because they know they can get away with it.
Some point to the lack of respect and rights given to women in Muslim or Arab nations as a major factor contributing to the problem. Others blame a mob mentality similar to what happened in the Astrodome during Hurricane Katrina, or the wildings of Central Park during New York City’s Puerto Rico Day parades. Yet others feel that the attention given to the assaults of a few foreign journalists is a deliberate plot to discredit the revolution. All of these elements can be either highlighted or obscured by how narratives of rape and sexual assault are framed — witness Natasha Smith’s emotional account where her “long blonde hair” was a symbol of her “alienness” and availability to the Egyptian mobs, verses Lara Logan’s terse statement to the press which stated the facts of her assault without blaming an entire people or culture.
Regardless, sexual harassment must be recognized as a crime, not the result of an experiment in cultural relativity or psychological conditions. By dealing with sexual harassment — in Tahrir Square or anywhere else — as a legal issue, and by enacting stiff punishment for the perpetrators, we can sidestep blaming “Muslim” or “Arab” culture, or the sweeping generalizations of “all men” as being capable of committing these crimes. Tough legislation against sexual assault is what will bring justice to the men and women of Tahrir Square, and millions of Egyptians for generations to come.