Egyptian Government Deals With Sexual Attacks on Female Protesters by Blaming the Victims
In the void left by the government's utter lack of action, citizens are stepping forward to protect women at demonstrations.
The prevalence of sexual terrorism in Cairo—emerging prominently in international media late last month—continues to cast a shadow over protestors and activists marching on Tahrir Square and other popular protest sites. It has become a polarizing issue of its own amid continuing protests against the government.
Russ Wellen earlier this month implicated Egypt's large percentage of jobless, frustrated youth as contributing significantly to the problem, observing that “these crimes can be classified as fallout from not only the Egyptian government's repressive policies, but its failure to improve the economy.” And indeed, groups of these oppressed, resentful men often linger in the square. One such nameless youth bluntly told Aleem Maqbool of the BBC when asked about the increase of sexual assaults in the square, “We are depressed, we can't find jobs and money, what do you expect?”
The answer varies widely depending on whom you ask.
Take Ahmad Mahmoud Abdullah, a radical Salafist sheikh known as “Abu Islam,” who was arrested for “defamation of religion” for his controversial remarks regarding the presence of women in Tahrir Square. According to him, it is halal (permissible) to rape female protestors and that these women “have no shame, no fear and not even feminism [sic].”
If only the culture of victim blaming these female protestors ended with one delusional man—but it seems it is only considered “defamation of religion” to victim blame if you are not a part of the government.
The Shura Council Human Rights Committee—part of Egypt's upper house of Parliament—in a press conference went so far as to claim that these rampant sexual assaults are, essentially, not the Interior Ministry's problem. Rana Muhammad Taha of The Daily News Egypt provides a disturbing round-up of these statements from the committee:
“Women should not mingle with men during protests,” said Reda Al-Hefnawy, Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) member. “How can the Ministry of Interior be tasked with protecting a lady who stands among a group of men?”
“A woman who joins protests among thugs and street inhabitants should protect herself before asking the Ministry of Interior to offer her protection,” said Adel Afifi, a prominent board member of the Salafi Party Al-Asala.
“The woman bears the offence when she chooses to protest in places filled with thugs,” said Salafi Al-Nour Party member Salah Abdel Salam.
At the same session, a female Muslim Brotherhood MP suggested that these women “think twice” before demonstrating “so as not to become prey to sexual offenders and armed thugs who commit rape.”
The Muslim Brotherhood—the ruling Islamist party in Parliament—has also been implicated in orchestrating these sexual assaults particularly against Tahrir Square, a “symbol” of the revolution—and indeed, their response thus far has not laid such accusations to rest. During the human rights committee session, Brotherhood MPs were using the sexual attacks as justification to push anti-protest legislation. As Vivian Salama of The Daily Beast reports, the absurdity of the government’s response is not lost on women’s organizations in Egypt:
“What does our government do? Instead of implementing laws that make sexual assault a crime, they are making the publicity of these attacks a crime,” said Nancy Omar … spokeswoman of Egyptian Women; Red Line, a group of volunteers from various political factions united to defend the rights of women. “And then they question our motives for going to these protests—how silly!”
In the void left by the government’s utter lack of action, such non-profit organizations and volunteer groups have instead stepped up to the plate to protect, assist, and defend victims of these attacks. Some police common protest areas, moving quickly to save women who could get caught in “circles of hell,” groups of men who violently swarm victims in horrifically organized tiers. Others help shepherd women to hospitals and help pay the costs, or offer free self-defense courses as a preventative measure.
It is tragic that the impetus to enforce basic human rights has fallen on the shoulders of civilians. One can only hope that these volunteers and activists can mitigate this ongoing trend of violence against women during Egypt’s upheaval—especially since in the face of government apathy and a culture of rampant victim blaming, they are the only buffer left to safeguard women’s political voices.
Leslie Garvey is an intern at Foreign Policy in Focus.