“Suddenly I found my pants down, a hand between my legs. I did not know how he unbuckled my belt without me feeling him…”
This is a typical statement beginning Egyptian women’s tales of sexual harassment. They almost always focus on “the belt” the first time they tell their stories as if the belt was the last protector to fail them.
Sexual harassment has become an epidemic in the last 15 years. In a society where rape victims are routinely blamed for their experiences, Egyptian women were too ashamed to speak out because they felt the harassment was their fault; as if the way they spoke, walked, or dressed was to blame.
The niqab, or full face-veil, spread—helped by Wahabi thinking portraying sexual assault as a woman’s fault—as well as the Isdal which covers a woman’s body in a balloon-like jumper-skirt, satirically referred to as “the tent”.
Women covered up, hoping to keep at bay the hands and other body parts that violated them. It only got worse. Clothes did not offer protection and with this realisation came a revelation; harassers are not deterred by clothes, but rather by women or other standing up to them—and from this revelation emerged “the case of the shouting woman”.
By the end of the 90s, a new social phenomenon was seen on the streets. Suddenly a woman would start screaming and calling a man all possible names. The man would run away and pedestrians would give the angry woman exasperated looks. In a society where movies and traditions honour the image of the delicate defenseless woman as the ideal model of femininity, this was ground-breaking. Women were fed up and discovered that most of their regular harassers were cowards.
Girls started to encourage each other to stand up to harassment against the advice of their parents, who would tell them to ignore the beasts lest they cause a scene or get stabbed. Young women discovered that walking in groups also helped, adopting a herd mentality inspired by living in a human jungle where animalistic behaviour was the norm.
The media began to pick up on harassment. People started talking about the issue, dissecting it and the psychological reasons for such behaviour. Some blamed poverty or illiteracy while some religious figures blamed women, the way they dressed or the way that they “mingled” with men. Fights ensued on TV talk shows over who to blame, ignoring the women’s plight and the one solution to harassment: retribution.
Justice for violated women was not on the agenda.
I remember covering a case in 2006 where two men confessed to raping and beating a young woman to death. The judge sentenced one to three years in jail and the other to three months. It was an eye-opening reminder that retribution for sexual assault barely exists in Egypt.
The Mubarak regime used sexual assault against women to extract information or as leverage against male members of the same family, with the Ministry of Interior as the regime’s main accomplice.
Then, in 2011, the revolution began: the 18-day sit-in of thousands of men and women in Tahrir Square. No sexual harassment was reported during that period. It was strange. In marches I’d get squished together with hundreds of men of varying socioeconomic classes and they would clear a path for me to walk.
No one grazed his body against an unsuspecting woman; no hands grabbed at women’s shirts. It was exhilarating. The square had rules and one them was if you harass a woman, you get beaten and thrown out. People abided by the rules because they wanted to belong to a better world.
Tahrir Square found the solution to harassment: punishment and exile.
Six months after Egypt’s first civilian president was elected amid hopes of a better life, women are beaten, raped and sexually assaulted with knives as they protested against Morsi’s rule in the same square. Harassment has upgraded from being an individual to a group activity.
Videos of organised gangs of young harassers isolating a woman in Tahrir, surrounding her like a pack of hyenas and tearing her clothes off as other protesters, male and female, try to save her, filled social networks. Footage so horrible it stunned a society that still regards itself as “religious”.
Brave young women spoke out on TV in front of millions on the horror of organised rape to scare off female activists and protestors.
Accusations against the Muslim Brotherhood of organising gang rapes to terrorise women surfaced in international media reports. The same technique used by the Mubarak regime is being reused by the new dictator and his posse. Activists demanded to know why, if the Brotherhood was innocent, had they not filed lawsuits against the international papers accusing them of such horrendous acts. Why remain silent?
A valid question that remains unanswered.
The more pressing question is what have the current government and president done about it? Nothing but a “proposed” law against harassment.
A self-proclaimed Islamist president, who, according to the Sharia, is responsible for not only the people but the animals of the country he rules, has abandoned his female citizens to rape and sexual assault. A president who claims to abide by the Sharia that punishes sexual assault with death has done nothing but condemn the act.
He has not even regaled us with a passionate speech after a woman was violated with a knife in Tahrir as he did during the Gaza-Israel mini-war a couple of months ago. Morsi and the Brotherhood have proven once more that Egyptian women are not on their “important issues radar”, particularly when these women are not members of their Brotherhood.
Those who thought that Egyptian women would cower under threats of rape and assault got a surprise last Wednesday. Women of all ages and socioeconomic backgrounds were invited by different anti-harassment groups, mainly Operation Anti Sexual Harassment and Tahrir Bodyguards, to march against sexual threats.
Over 2000 women—and hundreds of men—joined the march, bringing with them a utensil they know how to use well: kitchen knives. Young ladies held their knives high, promising any harasser an unpleasant meeting with a sharp kitchen knife. The message was clear: “I will castrate whoever dares lay a hand on me.” Men on the street were dumbfounded to see women half their size waving knives and chanting against harassment, Morsi, and the Brotherhood.
This is what women in Egypt have been driven to in order to protect themselves: acts of extreme physical violence.
Some NGOs are now offering free self-defence classes to women, teaching them to be in control and helping to boost their confidence with the awareness that they can protect themselves.
Next Tuesday, many countries will join Egyptian women in demonstrations against sexual harassment. The different capitals of the world will join Egyptians in their fight against this epidemic, promising that women will no longer be threatened.
Women of Egypt will continue to march, protest, and speak out against injustice. They will not be terrorised into silence.
And if harassment continues, Egypt will have another new phenomenon: eunuchs.