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Egyptian women struggle to fight sexual harassment

Female protesters attacked during Tahrir Square demonstrations


by Sherif Elhelwa, The Media Line

February 28, 2013 | 11:35 am

Tahrir square during a protest of Egyptians opposing President Mohamed Morsi in Cairo on Feb. 8. Photo by Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters

Tahrir square during a protest of Egyptians opposing President Mohamed Morsi in Cairo on Feb. 8. Photo by Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters

Despite its calls for democracy, freedom of speech and revolution against traditional Egyptian society, the current anti-government demonstrations have witnessed one negative phenomenon – an increase in harassment of women.

Women have been attacked and in some instances raped in public during demonstrations in Tahrir Square which have escalated in recent days, with some rumors claiming that the government of President Mohamed Morsi is behind the attacks. Women were previously beaten by members of the army in past protests.

In response, groups of Cairo-educated women have undertaken to protect women.  Both the Tahrir Bodyguards and Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment were organized by women with a strong belief in fighting sexual harassment by raising awareness, empowering women, and creating groups on the ground to patrol marches and demonstrations.

Historically Egyptian women have made great strides in obtaining their rights. They enjoy a 77 percent literacy rate and are making an impact in the work place. They were granted rights, in some cases, way before their Western counterparts, including the right to vote and widespread participation in protests, going back to the 1919 revolution which saw leaders like Safiya Zaghloud and Nahawiya Moussa lead the call for equal rights.

According to UN rape statistics reports and per capita cases of recorded rapes, Egypt is in 50th or last place, with 87 rape-reported cases in 2008. In the past, many sexual assaults, rape, and sexual harassment went unreported, many times due to the women's fear of the stigma that comes in a society that puts a social value on virginity. What is feeding the existing alleged sexual harassment is the seemingly uneducated Egyptian men's attitude towards women. These sudden cases of harassment of women are new to Egyptian society and didn't take place before 2008, and include incidents of assault against women during Eid Festivals and in public gardens and cinemas.

There are many physical training centers that teach self-defense to women, but the Tahrir Bodyguards and Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment are leaders in fighting current sexual harassment during protests past the Arab Spring.

"I was never physically assaulted, but I was harassed, albeit without any direct connection to the revolution. It happened to me many years before,” Soraya Baghat, a full-time member of the Tahrir Bodyguards and a women's rights activist, told The Media Line. “The motive behind our group is that we don't want women to risk getting attacked and for those of my fellow activists who were attacked, to go through this again."

She said she believes that sexual harassment can happen at all levels of society, regardless of economic and social standing, but there is hesitancy to report it when it happens to people from the same economic class because of the embarrassment involved and the social consequences of the scandal in Egypt's closed society.

Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment, co-founder Dalia Abdel Hamiid, 31, a graduate in anthropology from the American University in Cairo, says its aim is to "break the silence and take the problem outside of Tahrir Square." She says the main difficulty is society "accepting" such harassment. "It's a patriarchal society where males are preferred over females. I am sexually harassed on a daily basis on my way to work. It is annoying but I learn to live with it," she told The Media Line.

One woman, a Californian living in Cario, said that "If anyone ever tries to touch me against my will, you won't see that person in one piece again." 

Neveen Bishay, a woman dentist working in Cairo's upscale Zamalek area, noted that "Sexual harassment in Egypt is flirting. Touching body parts is sexual assault, and not just harassment."

However, Dr. Heba Qoth, a professor at the Cairo Faculty of Medicine and renown sociologist who has her own radio show on how to have a healthy sex life, argued that harassment has many degrees and is understood differently by different people. Some even consider flirting as sexual harassment  As for the Tahrir Square incidents, she said "I wouldn't call it sexual harassment. It's an organized assault to scare women and sometimes attack them, but we cannot confirm it's sexual."

There is no severe punishment in Egypt for sexual harassment or sexual assault and it's hard to prove, according to legal experts."The law considers sexual harassment and assault as a misdemeanor, and usually the assailant is fined about $5, or three months in jail, or both," one lawyer told The Media Line. Asked about the Tahrir Square incidents, he said: "There is more propaganda than fact, and a few people wanting to be in the spotlight. The sexual assault cases that I saw were merely groups of individuals assaulting another individual, who happened to be female."

Some Egyptians interviewed said sexual harassment isn't a growing concern compared to other countries they visited. They claimed that rising aggression now and in the past few years can be attributed to the deteriorating economic situation.

"When you and I flirt, it is acceptable. When lower class folks do it, it's called harassment – might makes right, or money makes right," an academic researcher who chose to remain anonymous said.

"Rape isn't intended just for females at the protests, males get harassed as well, and it's symbolic and intended to rape the revolution as a whole. The whole idea behind the systematic assaults is to make the victims feel ashamed," Alaa Alaswani, an Egyptian novelist, and a founding member of the political movement Kefaya said in an interview on ONTV.

"Egypt's current status quo has made men lose their sense of manliness. To me it's an assault by a stronger creature against a weaker creature who happens to be a woman, and we can't pinpoint if it's sexual or not. What is happening now happened early in the revolution, when the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) was ordering soldiers to conduct virginity tests and attack women at the protests," Lobna Monieb, a female activist and correspondent for the Japanese newspaper Asabi Shenbum., told The Media Line. She also noted that men get assaulted too, with incidents during riots in which men were physically and sexually assaulted in public by the riot police, the military or private citizens.

The issue, which has gotten a great deal of media coverage, therefore is whether what is happening in Tahrir Square is an organized event by pro-regime elements, where "sexual assault mobs" are determined to deter women – who represent 52 percent of the population and can therefore have a strong bearing on events and perhaps even topple the government -- from participating in the ongoing protests.

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