Credit: Jessica Gray
CAIRO, Egypt (WOMENSENEWS)– It was two years ago today that Egyptians began flooding the streets to protest decades of tyranny and corruption, marking the start of a revolution that drove former President Hosni Mubarak from power.
Activists focused on the danger of mob sexual assault aren’t planning to join Friday’s massive celebrations set for downtown Cairo. Instead, they plan to patrol the capital’s iconic Tahrir Square, on high alert for women in need of bodily rescue.
“The main objective is to get the girl out. It is crisis management,” says Eba’a El-Tamami, marketing and communications unit head for HarassMap.
Based in the capital, HarassMap collects data about harassment, conducts community awareness and outreach programs and is part of a campaign called Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment-Assault, which draws strength from a coalition of groups.
The organization’s goal, says El-Tamami, “is to counter what we suspect are organized, mob sexual assaults.”
Verbal sexual harassment is a common nuisance on Egyptian streets. However, HarassMap and other groups claim these mob attacks constitute something far more sinister.
“We think it’s organized and planned,” says El-Tamami. “We think it’s probably paid thugs, but we don’t know who is paying them. There are quite a few eye-witness reports . . . People who have had this happen say it’s very difficult to imagine this is random or sporadic . . . . I don’t want to speculate but there are definitely people who have interest in positioning the square as dangerous and make protesters look like harassers or thugs.”
Female victims have turned to social media to share their harrowing experiences. Some recount being stripped, molested and beaten with weapons. Others say they faced even worse tortures, such as kidnapping and repeated sexual assault.
In response, nonprofits, women’s groups and human rights organizations in the capital formed the Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment-Assault campaign to intervene and rescue victims from mob attacks.
Lara Logan, a South African war reporter and correspondent for the TV program “60 Minutes” was the first victim to garner international attention after being brutally beaten and sexually assaulted by a male gang in the square on Feb. 11, 2011, while working for American network CBS. It was same night Mubarak announced his resignation.
Since then, several women have described the shocking sexual and physical violence suffered at the hands of swarming packs of men that they believe are part of organized gangs hired to cause trouble.
To prevent the attacks, male and female volunteers from Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment-Assault campaign hand out hotline numbers during major daytime protests and marches. If an assault is reported, volunteers in the group’s control room direct the closest patrols to the scene.
When they arrive, patrol members–some of whom are female–insinuate themselves inside the mob, form a protective ring around the victim and do their best to keep her safe. Then, a female volunteer rushes in to help clothe the victim before volunteers hurry the victim and volunteers out of the mob and to a nearby safe house.
El-Tamami says these confrontations can be tense and dangerous. “Our objective is to not use violence, but it’s possible that people get involved in it; that’s the nature of these situations.”
According to her, during a major protest in Tahrir Square last November, the group got between six and eight calls, some at the same time, between 7 p.m. and 11 p.m. Despite the frequency of the mob assaults, no one knows who is orchestrating the violence or why.
El-Tamami and others say the social acceptability of sexual harassment partly explains why the courts have punished so few men so far. The first successful prosecution saw a man sentenced to three years in prison and hard labor in 2008 for groping film director Noha Rushdi Saleh, also known as Noha Ostadh.
Watching in Horror
Pakinam Badran, a media representative at the Cairo-based anti-harassment group Imprint Foundation, was in the square during one such attack and watched in horror as the mob surrounded its intended victim, brandishing all kinds of weapons.
“I saw two mob attacks on the same day,” she says. “I stood there and watched, feeling an adrenaline rush, thinking I might know someone involved. The guys had sticks, whips, electric shocks, everything. But then a group took the woman out and made a barricade around her.” Before this attack, she had personally seen only one-on-one sexual harassment. A few days before this attack, however, she had seen a televised report on mob attacks.
Like HarassMap, Imprint Foundation‘s goal is to make harassment of all forms taboo.
The foundation sent out its own downtown Cairo patrols during Eid holidays last year. Badran says they confronted more than 50 harassers and helped five women press charges.
The group’s patrollers are male. Female members feel it is still too dangerous to confront sexual harassers and don’t want to become victims themselves.
Egypt is also plagued with a culture of victim blaming, say critics, where women are told they deserve to be harassed for the way they dress, if they are wearing makeup or whether they wear a traditional Muslim veil.
“Our mission at HarassMap is to end the social acceptability of sexual harassment in Egypt,” says El-Tamami. “We think that the increased social acceptability over the years is what has led sexual harassment to reach such a crisis level. If a girl screamed out ‘harasser!’–which she probably wouldn’t do because she is scared of what will happen–you get bystanders who might join in [the harassment], be passive or blame it on you, your hair or what you are wearing.”
Jessica Gray is a Canadian journalist reporting on the Middle East from Cairo.
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