In Egypt’s Crisis, Standing Up Against Sexual Abuse

In Egypt’s Crisis, Standing Up Against Sexual Abuse

by Chris Lombardi

This weekend, Egyptian voters went to the polls despite what many were calling a ‘constitutional coup.’ On June 14, the Supreme Constitutional Court ordered the Parliament dissolved, three days before the scheduled presidential runoff between Mohammed Shafiq, an associate of deposed leader Hosni Mubarak, and Ahmed Morsi of the “Muslim Brotherhood” already regarded as a Hobson’s choice by Egyptian feminists and pro-democracy activists.  By Sunday night, two things had happened: Morsi was declared the victor, and the military government issued a charter which reserved to the military the power to control the prime minister, lawmaking, the national budget and declarations of war. Left far behind: what did this all mean for women?

Even before then, groups like the April 6 Movement and  Nazra Feminist Studies, a grassroots Egyptian organization founded after the Arab Spring, have worried what these elections would mean for women, given the Islamist majority in the just-dissolved Parliament and the fact that only seven women had been selected to help draft the country’s new constitution join in its 100-member Constituent Assembly. Now, the “coup” also came just as sexual violence against women who leave their homes was escalating.
Most recently, on June 8, a group of women trying to march against such harassment was assaulted by mobs of men. One account released by Nazra:
I was grabbed from my ass again and it was a long thing, it wasn’t something accidental or someone who is having fun. No, it was as if someone knows exactly what he is doing and why he is doing it. I turn around and he was there staring at me I recognized him at once he didn’t even feel ashamed or anything he kept staring at me!

The woman’s testimony was released  as part of a Day of Online Awareness on June 13, as hundreds of journalists and bloggers, some using the Twitter hashtag “endSH,” discussed the sexual harassment and abuse that has increasingly characterized life in post-Mubarak Egypt.

Such attacks have long been seen as an effort to “scare women away from the public sphere, to punish women for their participation, and to keep them at home to avoid the premeditated attacks against them,” reads a January report that already cataloged violence against women human rights defenders. “The military regime does not welcome women’s public actions and defends abuses on the basis of moral justifications.”  It also failed to prosecute these abuses,  Human Rights Watch researcher Heba Morayef told USA Today: “If you know you can get away with sexual harassment and assault, then there is an overall impunity.”

The June attacks appeared organized and systematic. Protestor Shady Khalil told ABC News: “The men were very determined, they were moving in groups, they all knew each other and it just felt organized.” When the woman first quoted above started to leave, “I saw two guys on a motorcycle shouting and yelling “el shaab yoreed el neswan“ ‘People want women,'” she writes, adding that there was far too little support from male activists. “Tens of men who were around me … in my view now are all harassers; they are all participants in the crime.”

As those words were released to the world last week,  the testimonies were being amplified online from the Egyptian newsblog Bikmasyar  to the Facebook group HELP END EGYPTIAN SEXUAL HARASSMENT and the Harass Map, in which women could record online any level of unwanted attention in the Cairo area.  Amnesty International joined the day’s effort: “The prevailing climate of impunity must stop, to bring perpetrators to justice,” organizer Hassiba Hadj Sahraouitold the Associated Press.

Perhaps most surprising, a group of Egyptian students and activists recorded this video calling out men who even indulge in unwanted verbal commentary:

Before the awareness campaign could gather steam came the events of June  14 and the military government’s subsequent assertion of power. Women’s groups remained skeptical about promises from both of the presidential candidates about women’s rights:  Fatma Emam, a researcher told the press that save one first-round candidate, “Not one candidate has made the effort to talk with the women’s movement during his campaign.”

News coverage during the day reported steady if unimpressive turnout, which Al-Jazeera reporter Rawya Rageh described as “completely without that revolutionary spirit.” Eminent author Nawaal el-Sadaawi, who proudly spent last spring in Tahrir Square, said when asked who she’d choose: “Nobody! Not one of the them. Because none of them comes from the revolution. I am waiting for someone who was in Tahrir Square, who suffered with us. If they come forward, I will vote for them.”

Chris Lombardi’s work has been published by The Nation, Ms. Magazine, Poets & Writers, Women’s Enews and the American Bar Association Journal, among others, and for three years she was an editor at Women’s Voices for Change. Her fiction has appeared in, Minnesota Review, Lurch, and The Pearl. Her book, “I Ain’t Marching Anymore: Soldiers Who Dissent, from George Washington to Bradley Manning,” will be published by University of California Press in 2013. She is the Associate Editor of On The Issues Magazine.