"Like Blaming A Cat For Eating Meat That Was Left Out": Egypt's Revolution And The Epidemic Of Rape In Tahir Square

Many feel that Tahrir Square is no longer a safe space for female protesters -- and Egyptian women are hardly wilting lilies.

Jul 10, 2013 at 5:00pm | Leave a comment

On June 30, exactly one year after President Mohammed Morsi of the conservative Islamist Muslim Brotherhood was elected, 33 million Egyptians took to the streets demanding his resignation in the largest popular demonstration in recorded history. Discontent with President Morsi’s absolutist rule and failure to improve the political and economic conditions in Egypt, Egyptians once again took to Tahrir Square shouting “Ash-Shab yureed, izqat a-nizam” or “The people, we want, an end to the regime.”

Soon after the protests began -- and quickly became violent, killing six and injuring hundreds in the first few days alone as the anti-government protesters stormed and burned the headquarters of the Muslim Brotherhood in Cairo -- the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF), or Egypt’s army, declared that President Morsi had 48 hours to heed the demands of the protesters or to resign, which would put the army in control of the country.

Although President Morsi claimed that the SCAF needed the United States’ approval before removing him, he and the Muslim Brotherhood were ousted. Egypt was once again, for better or for worse, in a chaotic democratic transition.

The night President Morsi was overthrown, millions of Egyptians rejoiced in Tahrir Square, mimicking the night in February of 2011 that former dictator Hosni Mubarak fled Egypt. As the SCAF once again gained control, Egyptian anti-government protesters shouted, “the people and the army fight as one fist.”

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Nawal el-Saadawi on the march for women's rights.

Image credit: Gigi Ibrahim

But not all Egyptians rejoiced. Some Egyptians recalled the last time the army seized power following former dictator Hosni Mubarak’s fall, channeling their new political power into a ruthless dictatorship of their own. They criticized the rejoicing Egyptians for forgetting the recent past, and once again thoughtlessly trusting the military.

Still others were in favor of President Morsi, and took to the streets in millions demanding his return. However, this became a tragic massacre when, on Monday morning, anti-government protesters attempted to storm the headquarters of the Republican Guard, which led to violent clashes leaving 51 dead, including women and children.

The Muslim Brotherhood has called for nation-wide protests, meaning that the chaos -- and quite possibly the violence -- will only escalate.

But perhaps most shocking is the enormous violence against women.

Since the beginning of the most recent uprisings -- only a little over one week ago -- there have been 168 recorded cases of sexual assault, many of which are violent mob-style gang rapes that have involved female protesters in Tahrir Square. Unfortunately, this is part of an escalating trend of violent mob-style sexual assaults and gang rapes happening in the crowded square which make it an increasingly hostile space for women -- Egyptians, foreigners and journalists alike.

Many feel that Tahrir Square is no longer a safe space for female protesters -- and Egyptian women are hardly wilting lilies.

Since there are very few legal repercussions for sexual assailants, and even more instances of culturally-induced shame, many women who have been assaulted in Egypt both in and out of Tahrir Square keep silent. As in the west, women in Egypt are frequently told that the reason they are assaulted is because they are dressing immodestly, and attracting otherwise innocent men into assaulting them.

Under President Morsi’s administration, this omnipresent rape culture became even more apparent as Islamist clerics announced that women deserved to be raped and blaming a man for raping a woman in the square was, “like blaming a cat for eating meat that was left out.” (Not a new comment from conservative clerics.)

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Egyptian women and supporters rally against sexual assault at Tahrir Square.

Photo credit: Gigi Ibrahim

Ironically, though the Muslim Brotherhood ignored sexual assaults over the past year, pro-Morsi protesters have leveraged the sexual assaults as a means to delegitimize the anti-government protests happening in Tahrir Square. Meanwhile, women who are assaulted in Tahrir Square are pressured to stay silent to maintain the “sanctity” of Tahrir Square, fearful that bringing up sexual assault will jeopardize the revolution.

In the absence of a legal framework for dealing with sexual assaults, over the past two years many grassroots efforts to combat and prevent, and report sexual violence have sprung up. Perhaps the two most notable are Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment (and Assault) (shortened to OpAntiSH), an ongoing campaign to draw awareness to sexual assaults that happen in Tahrir Square, and Tahrir Bodyguard, a volunteer collective that organizes “bodyguards” to survey the crowds and intervene whenever they see a mob-style sexual assault occurring in the square.

Over the past week, they have reportedly actively intervened and stopped several assaults, and tweeted hotlines for anyone who had been assaulted in the square or felt unsafe.

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Members of the Tahrir Bodyguard. 

Photo credit: Gigi Ibrahim

What is next? Where should I look and who should I follow for news?

After the killings on Monday morning, Egypt’s interim leadership announced a timetable for early elections in the next six months. In the meantime, as always Jadaliyya has had excellent, in depth coverage of the protests as has The Nation, with Egyptian-American journalist Sharif Abdel Koudous on the ground. Also, Al Jazeera is keeping a liveblog and has several excellent feature articles on many different aspects of the uprisings. For updates on the sexual assaults, and violence against women, follow @OpAntiSH and @TahrirBodyguard on Twitter and have a look at this France24 documentary (in English).