By Diana Eltahawy, Amnesty International’s Egypt researcher, in Cairo
While the world is focusing on the political fall-out of millions of people taking to the streets in Egypt, with widespread calls for the resignation of President Mohamed Morsi, and the army taking over, other stomach-turning developments have passed virtually unnoticed: Women and girls protesting in the vicinity of Tahrir Square are, time and time again, being sexually attacked by mobs, with authorities remaining idle.
This is not a new phenomenon.
Testimonies from women caught up in the demonstrations, survivors from previous protests and those trying to help, point to a horrific chain of events: tens if not hundreds of men surround their victims, tearing-off their clothes and veils, unzipping trousers, groping breasts and backsides. Sticks, blades and other weapons are frequently used in such attacks.
The mob attacks of the last two days are tragic repeats on a larger scale of similar incidents during previous major protests including against President Morsi’s Constitutional Declaration in November 2012 and protests commemorating the second anniversary of the “25 January Revolution” in January 2013.
The repetition of these frightening attacks over the weekend is yet another stark reminder of how successive Egyptian governments, including President Morsi’s, have failed to address gender-based violence and discrimination.
On 30 June, Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment/Assault (OpAntiSH), an initiative by a number of Egyptian human rights organizations, groups and individuals set-up to combat sexual harassment and assaults, received reports of 46 cases of violent sexual attacks against women in the vicinity of Tahrir Square. At the Presidential Palace, the “I saw Harassment” initiative reported yet another case. Amnesty International believes the real numbers are likely to be much higher.
Attacks in the vicinity of Tahrir Square were first reported around 6pm, continuing late into the night. According to information available to Amnesty International, at least one survivor had to undergo surgery as a result of the attacks, and several more were left in need of medical attention.
OpAntiSH activists along with volunteers from Tahrir Bodyguard, another group seeking to put an end to all forms of sexual harassment of women, sought to intervene to get survivors to safety. Their hotlines did not stop ringing into the early hours of the morning; at times their attempts to help were hindered by prank offensive calls.
Rescuing women from attacks came at great personal risk as many volunteers were beaten and attacked with blades and other weapons. One of the volunteers was reported to have suffered concussion after receiving a heavy blow to the head, while others received stitches.
The attacks were not restricted to the 30 June. By midnight on the second day of the mass protests, OpAntiSH reported 17 further cases of sexual assaults, including elderly women and girls as young as seven. On 03 July OpAntiSH received about 25 reports of attempted sexual harassment or assaults where one needed psychological intervention. The volunteers and bystanders intervened for the rest.
Attacks already started in the build-up to the mass demonstrations of 30 June. Two days before, the Nazra for Feminist Studies, a group that aims to build a feminism movement in Egypt, received information on 12 cases of sexual assaults on women in the vicinity of the Square; including cases where women were hospitalized.
When news of similar attacks started to emerge earlier this year, some officials including the Prime Minister were quick to condemn them with the promise of new legislation on violence against women. Sadly, these steps by the authorities seem to be nothing more than an attempt to deflect criticism, including from the international community.
The National Council of Women sent a draft law on violence against women to the President and the Prime Minister in mid-June but nothing seems to have changed.
In May, without any consultation with women’s rights groups and activists, it was announced that a special all female unit had been established under the Ministry of Interior to address sexual harassment and violence against women. However, they were nowhere to be seen in the past few days. Meanwhile, volunteers and human rights activists attempted to try to fill the vacuum created by the state’s failure; working tirelessly to get women and girls to safety and provide them with much needed medical, psychological and legal support.
The government has also failed to address the deep-seated discriminatory discourse and attitudes reverberating across society that blames women for the attacks they suffered.
Following the emergence of testimonies of mob sexual assaults on women, members of the Shura Council, Egypt’s Upper House of Parliament, said in February 2013 women had brought the attacks upon themselves by attending the protests.
Women should not mingle with men during demonstrations, they claimed.
After the latest horrific incidents, prominent members of the Muslim Brotherhood publicized the sexual assaults on social media. Channels known for their support of the President leapt at the opportunity to “prove” that his opponents are nothing but “thugs” and “criminals”. On 29 June, the Office of the President’s assistant on foreign relations issued a statement in English – clearly targeting the international community – pointing to sexual attacks on women by his opponents compared to the “peaceful” protests held by his supporters.
It seems the President’s office is quick to respond to cases which may bring international condemnation. His spokesperson indicated on 30 June that steps are being taken in relation to the rape of a foreign woman journalist.
It is a different story for Egyptian women sexually assaulted on the streets. The Muslim Brotherhood’s newfound concern for violence against women is a far cry from its statement in March described a UN declaration calling for an end to violence against women as the destruction of “family life and entire society”.
Opponents of the President are also not free from blame. They called for mass mobilization of protests, yet despite precedents, they failed to raise awareness or to speak out against sexual assaults.
What is needed today is not political score-settling, but real action. Crimes against all survivors must be independently, impartially and fully investigated with a view of bringing those responsible to justice.
And past actions speak louder than words. Seven survivors of sexual assaults in the vicinity of Tahrir Square during previous protests in November 2012 and January 2013 lodged a complaint with the public prosecution in March. While investigations were initiated, they have now stalled and nobody has been held to account. A lawyer working on the case told Amnesty International that a prosecutor described the case as “not being a priority” given the other more “serious crimes” he had to investigate.
This dismissive attitude, along with attempts to justify the attacks, does nothing but reinforce entrenched society’s attitudes which put women’s lives at risk. Sadly, regardless of what happens in Egypt in the next few days, a long road lies ahead in the struggle for equality.