Shaming the shameless: the politics of sexual assault in post-Mubarak’s Egypt exposed

Mariz Tadros photo miniMariz Tadros

In preparation for the 30th of June millioniyya [one million person protest] against the current Muslim Brotherhood-led regime, youth coalitions, women’s organizations and human rights activists are bracing themselves for a wave of politically motivated sexual assaults. Groups like ShoftTa7rosh are co-ordinating monitoring, ensuring women are equipped with self-defence measures and that volunteer men are well prepared to pull women targets of assault out from the crowds. These collective actors have not mobilized in a vacuum, but in response to the organized operations of sexual violence targeting them in public spaces over the last two years. A pattern has emerged which suggests that these were politically motivated assaults, aimed at discouraging women from participating in protest action against the powers that be.

One of the most powerful images of the Arab revolts has been that of Egyptian women standing side by side with men in revolt in the densely crowded Tahrir Square. Since Mubarak was ousted in March 2011, there have been almost daily protests against new forms of authoritarian rule, economic hardship and citizen repression. One of the biggest was in December, after President Morsi issued a presidential decree granting himself executive, legislative, and judicial powers that even his predecessor never dared appropriate. Hundreds of thousands of citizens marched to the Presidential palace (El Ettehadeyah) to express their anger at this coup of usurped power. In response, the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafis organized a counter-protest.

Ola Shahba, a young political leader in the Populist Socialist Front, was there on the 5th of December when she was captured by followers of the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafis. She recounts that she was wearing a loose jacket and trousers, had her face covered [to protect against tear gas] and had a helmet on [to protect against attacks]. “I realized they could not see I am a woman. They started sexually harassing me from behind when they were thinking I am a man.” When they removed Ola’s helmet and realized she was a woman, “another wave of sexual harassment continued… grabbing me from the front”. She was taken to a military cubicle/kiosk. “The officer in charge asked them ‘would you like to beat her yourself or would you like me to do it?’” Ola was not the only one who was kidnapped – 140 men were too. She could see them from where she was being detained – and they had all been stripped to their underwear, a tactic that was understood as a form of humiliation.

Ola had used her phone, before it was taken from her, to call her friends. They called journalists who began to publicize on Twitter the names of leading Muslim brotherhood figures who were involved in her detention. They accused her of working for foreigners, and being part of the old regime. As pressure grew for her release, fuelled by Twitter, Muslim Brotherhood leaders tried to set her free but the Salafis wouldn’t let her go. One of them grabbed her by her hair, and bluntly told them, “you are not taking her, she is our booty”. After hours of being held in captivity, she was eventually released and rushed to hospital to deal with the severe blows that she had sustained.

From the accounts given by Ola and a number of other survivors of sexual violence on the 5th of December, some worrying dynamics emerge. It is evident that these are not just random acts of violence. The perpetrators were clearly identifiable as the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis, the security apparatus was complicit in the assaults and they expected impunity. And yet within Muslim brotherhood mobs, Salafi members and sympathizers, there were men who stood up against what was happening. From the narratives of the women who witnessed this, it became clear that these men genuinely empathized, recognising something morally abhorrent with the behaviour of the mobs.

December’s violence was repeated on the 25th of January 2013, when one of the worst ever organized wave of politically motivated sexual assault occurred, as protestors commemorated the memory of the Egyptian revolution by rising against the current Muslim Brotherhood regime.

The prevalent Islamist narrative on sexual assault presents a very different version of reality: Women who go out to protest in Tahrir Square and other public spaces are not virtuous but deviant, they “ask for it”. Sexual assault is the work of protestors who harass female protestors because they can’t control their urges. Women who go out to protest are in the wrong, they should never have left their homes in the first place. This narrative is congruent with that of Islamist satellite television stations; it is also the natural outcome of the impunity the perpetrators enjoy, with legal suits against them seeing very little advancement in the judicial system.

Egyptian political activists have announced that they will claim public protest spaces on the 30th June to make them assault-free in an attempt to send out a message to women and their families that they should not be terrorized from exercising their right to protest. It may not be a war setting, but for many, it feels like it.

Mariz Tadros is a Research Fellow in the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS.

Read other recent blogs by Mariz Tadros:

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