"I cannot possibly imagine what kind of joy a man can get out of taking a girl’s virginity with a knife, along with a mob of three hundred people,” said Hussein el-Shafie, regarding the events of January 25, 2013.
In a scene repeated many times that night, hundreds of men in Tahrir Square, many bearing knives and clubs, swarmed around a victim. One man lit a can of butane to push back the attackers and make space for the rescue team to get in and extract a girl from the center of the crowd. The mob pulled off her clothes, violated her with their hands and turned on the rescuers, trapping them for two hours before police dispersed the melee with tear gas.
On the 2nd anniversary of the Egyptian Revolution, activists from Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment (OpAntiSH) reported 19 cases of mob assaults, and of those cases, six required surgical intervention. One woman’s genitals were reportedly sliced with a knife, another needed a hysterectomy. OpAntiSH is a consortium of Egyptian non-profits and initiatives whose male and female volunteers have been working together since November 2012 to actively save women who are being mob assaulted during major protests.
Shafie, the community outreach manager at HarassMap — an initiative to end the social acceptability of sexual harassment in Egypt — was one of the OpAntiSH rescuers on January 25. He said that during the incident, “I asked one of them [the attackers], ‘What is it that you want?’ His answer was ‘We want these women [to go] inside.’”
Engy Ghozlan, a co-founder of HarassMap, explained that: “Sexual violence has been systematically used by the regime, by different forces to get women out of the public space.”
The attackers have a clear method whereby they isolate and encircle one or several girls and then descend upon them. OpAntiSH wears identifying t-shirts and has women on their extraction team to clearly identify rescuers from harassers. While different political groups have been accused of paying thugs to intimidate opposition protesters and journalists alike, the phenomenon of gang assaults on women reveals a much darker and complex scenario.
Activists say these attacks are rooted in a deep-set social acceptance of sexual harassment, which creates feelings of sympathy for the harasser and blame for the victim. When Shafie and other rescuers tried to take the bleeding girls to get proper medical attention, some hospitals refused to admit them. They were told to return in the morning when the forensic department was open because the injuries had to do with virginity and rape.
The current security vacuum in Egypt allows for a lack of accountability, leading to an increase in all types of crime. Disillusionment with the revolution, as well as the government’s continued use of violence and their failure to combat social problems such as unemployment and poverty, has exacerbated an already tense environment within Egypt. Shafie said he believes that those who are already marginalized in society take their anger out on people below them: “We have that system of power hierarchy where whoever is empowered makes the lives of the people who are disempowered hell. There is that very basic notion that women are physically less capable than men. That perpetrates all sorts of gender-based violence and harassment is only one form.”
Egypt’s religiously conservative society, however, cannot be justification for this behavior. During his outreach work in local neighborhoods, Shafie explained that he responds to men’s excuses about women’s clothing legitimatizing harassment by saying: “You are pretending to be religious but you are doing something that is completely against all morals, all religions, all that God or whatever moral code that anyone follows deems right or good.”
But it is not just the responsibility of local communities to fight this phenomenon. A woman’s right to personal security in a public place is not just a woman’s issue — it is a human right. If either the Egyptian government or political groups who call for protests want to claim human rights among their tenets, they must address this sexual violence. Simply put: these brutal attacks against women must stop.
Women have proven themselves to be vital in the process of progressive change in Egypt — the fact that such drastic measures have been taken to silence them proves their efficacy and that they are a threat to the status quo. Activists have urged women to be aware of what they may face when attending a protest but, luckily for Egypt, many women still brave the streets to make their voices heard.
Bridgette Auger is a photojournalist whose work has been published by Global Post, The Guardian and Daily Beast