CAIRO: Protests that reignited the spirit of the revolution on the first anniversary of the Jan. 25 uprising were tainted with an alarming number of reports of sexual harassment in Tahrir Square.
Nancy, who headed to the square to call for freedom, says she was subjected to a horrific experience.
At around 8:30 pm, she, along with another couple, entered Tahrir Square through Qasr El-Nil Bridge. Nancy, whose name has been changed to protect her privacy, said she was wary after no one checked their IDs as they entered.
She said they felt the scene change around them as they approached the area near the Muslim Brotherhood’s stage. “We looked around to find that we were the only women and were starting to get groped by the crowd,” said Nancy.
As they attempted to exit the square, both women were surrounded by tens of men who proceeded to grope them and tore their clothes off.
“They were ruining me, I was terrified because I didn’t know the outcome of what’s happening … I felt as a woman that everything, my dignity, was being taken away from me,” she recalled.
“What was frustrating was that there were a million people around and no one was helping,” said Nancy.
Nancy recalled being hysterical and crying, while her friend was fighting back, hitting and biting the men until she was able to get on top of the stage.
Nancy considers herself lucky she was saved by a group of two or three men who were able to disperse the crowd just as she felt her trousers being pulled down.
Other incidents of sexual harassment were reported on social media sites as well as through Harassmap, a website providing a map for harassment hotspots in Egypt.
Harassmap received an increased number of reports on Wednesday through its website, Twitter and SMS. Many of the reported incidents were similar to Nancy’s whereby a group of men formed a circle around one woman.
“We will be going to Tahrir with awareness banners and ask people in the tents and checkpoints to be watchful and not to ignore any sexual harassment incident when they see it,” said Rebecca Chaio, one of the founders of Harassmap.
She explained that not only do people need to protect the victim; they also need to speak out against the perpetrator.
“This is what happened in the first days of the revolution last year which made Tahrir Square free of sexual harassment, so we need to do this again,” she explained.
Last month when military forces cracked down on a peaceful sit-in in front of the Cabinet, several videos and images showed a heightened level of violence towards female protesters. Yara Sallam, Women Human Rights Defenders Program manager at Nazra for Feminist Studies, said this aims to send a message to women, scaring them from going to protests lest they face the same brutality.
“This time it is different as they are non-state actors,” she said, referring to sexual harassment incidents that took place last Wednesday. “This is mass sexual harassment which [usually] takes place during Eid, whereby men form a circle and harass the women,” Sallam said.
Egypt’s recurring issue of mass sexual harassment was first brought into the spotlight in October 2006, when videos of attacks on women in Cairo’s downtown area surfaced, showing hundreds of men surrounding and harassing them.
A study conducted in 2008 found that 83 percent of Egyptian women have experienced some form of sexual harassment.
Some are reluctant to speak out against incidents of sexual harassment in Tahrir Square to avoid tarnishing the image of the iconic square.
“Shedding light on [harassment cases] is not distorting the image of the revolution but a protection of [Tahrir] Square against it and investigating the perpetrators,” said Mohamed Diab, who wrote and directed the first Egyptian film “678” which tackled sexual harassment, via his Twitter account.
“For a better future in Egypt, we need to look at the problems and act on them, hiding and staying silent will only make it get bigger,” said Chaio, adding that “the revolution needs to be a safe place for everyone so we need to speak out against attacking women just as we are speaking out against all the other injustices.”