At least 100 women have been sexually assaulted and in some cases raped by mobs in Tahrir Square in Cairo during the recent mass protests against Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi. Human Rights Watch says that nothing less than an epidemic of sexual violence against women has been happening.
Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood have been criticized for a “polarizing style of governance“and for failing to address Egypt’s struggling economy and establish security. As of July 3, Morsi is no longer in power. After an ultimatum that the army had given him expired, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the head of the Egyptian army, announced on Egyptian TV that the country’s constitution has been suspended and that new elections will be held. But will the next regime take preventing violence against women seriously?
Women Protesters Unprotected in Tahrir Square
Since November 2011, HRW says that police have not maintained a presence in Tahrir Square during protests to avoid confrontations with those involved. The result has been that women protesters are unprotected and the men carrying out the attacks know that police with neither arrest or identify them. Some have said that the past week’s assaults have been organized to intimidate women from joining the demonstrations and were intended to cast a shadow over them.
A hotline run by an Egyptian group, Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment/Assault, reports that 46 attacks against women occurred this past Sunday, 17 on Monday and 23 on Tuesday. In 31 instances, volunteers from the group stepped in to protect and evacuate women from Tahrir Square. Four of the women needed medical assistance and two suffered so many injuries — one from being raped with a “sharp object” — that they had to be transported in an ambulance to the hospital.
In many cases, the women were not only assaulted for as long as an hour, but beaten with metal chains, sticks and chairs and attacked with knives. Those who rushed to help them were also attacked. In some cases, men claiming to help women “were in fact taking part” in the attacks, says HRW.
Women had endured equally horrific assaults by mobs in Tahrir Square in June and November of 2012 and in January of this year.
Assaults Highlight Government’s Failure To Address Violence Against Women
What the attacks more than reveal is “the failure of the government and all political parties to face up to the violence that women in Egypt experience on a daily basis in public spaces,” says Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at HRW.
The Egyptian government’s response to this wave of violence against women has been to sidestep the issue, either by downplaying how widespread a problem it is or saying it will be dealt with via legislative reforms. State medical officials, the media and political parties have shown little respect for women’s privacy and the trauma they experience. Members of the Shura Council, Egypt’s legislative body, have put the blame on women for the mob assaults in Tahrir. HRW quotes one member, General Adel Afifi, saying that “women contribute 100 percent in their rape because they put themselves in such circumstances.”
The Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Freedom and Justice Party also showed no respect for the privacy of one survivor of sexual assault, identifying her name and nationality on their website on July 1 and in the July 2 print version of the party’s paper.
The blame for being sexually assaulted has indeed fallen on women themselves. Those who have spoken out about the violence they have endured face social stigma. Knowing that the likelihood of their attackers being prosecuted is low, most women do not report sexual assaults to the police. It was an “unusual move among survivors” when Yasmine el-Baramawy, Hania Moheeb and five other women filed a joint complaint about sexual assaults they had endured in March. An investigation was opened and the women’s testimony taken, but none of their attackers have been identified nor indicted.
As Stork says, “Impunity for sexual violence against women in the public sphere in Egypt is the norm.” Egyptian governments have only offered women “piecemeal, ad-hoc responses” about sexual violence that is a far cry from the “the medical and psycho-social support” they truly need.
On Wednesday, after Morsi’s ouster in Egypt’s second revolution in two years, leading opposition figure Mohammed ElBaradei was among the religious and political leaders who appeared with General Sisi. ElBaradei said that there will now be a “fresh start” to the January 2011 revolution. Will women’s rights, including basic human rights to be able to live freely and without fear of sexual violence, be recognized?
Photo via Lorenz Khazaleh
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