For Egypt's women, silence on sexual harassment is unacceptable

Hundreds of women marched to Tahrir Square, brandishing knives and rolling pins, to make their anger heard.

Hundreds of Egyptian women marched from Cairo’s Sayeda Zeinab mosque to its historic Tahrir Square on Wednesday to demand an end to sexual harassment.

"Silence is unacceptable; my anger will be heard," read a banner. "A safe square for all; Down with sexual harassment!" said another.

The women carried knives, “for self defence,” a protester told news agency Youm7. A similar march against sexual harassment held in June last year, was attacked by mobs of men.

The women are protesting violent attacks on women, which occured in Tahrir Square last week. On the two year anniversary of Egypt’s 25 January revolution, at least 19 women were recorded to have been sexually assaulted by gangs of men. In one case, a woman's genitals were cut with a knife. Breaking taboos and risking stigma, newspapers, NGOs and activist groups have been speaking out and distributing witness testimonies of these attacks.

The Nazra Institute for Feminist Studies, recorded a woman’s experience of being stripped naked at the protest last Friday:

“I found my friend surrounded by hundreds of people and my male friend and I tried to save her but they pushed us. We fell on top of each other and they separated us into two circles. I did not understand anything at that moment… I did not comprehend what is happening… who are those people? All that I knew was that there were hundreds of hands stripping me of my clothes and brutally violating my body. There is no way out, for everyone is saying that they are protecting and saving me, but all I felt from the circles close to me, sticking to my body, was the finger-rape of my body, from the front and back; someone was even trying to kiss me… I was completely naked, pushed by the mass surrounding me to an alley… I am in the middle of this tightly knit circle. Every time I tried to scream, to defend myself, to call on a savior, they increased their violence and rape. I fell again in the sewer water in front of [fast food restaurant] Hardee’s and I realized, then, that falling amounts to death. I decided to keep my calm, seeing that screaming is followed by more violence. I tried to remain standing, holding onto their hands which are violating me, and their arms. In the alleyway near Hardee’s, I fell again in the same sewer, naked. I was able to escape death by stampede and found a building, where the doorman was standing behind the door, refusing to open it. I was stuck in the building’s entrance for a log time, bodies scrambling around me, their hands still violating me. I even saw some standing on top of elevated surfaces to be able to watch freely, feeding his sexual frustrations by watching. I felt that I spent a long time in that corner, until someone threw me a pullover, which was impossible to put on, as bodies stuck to me, preventing me from wearing it. I succeeded, in a moment, to put the pullover on, the same moment I heard a group of young men to my left agreeing to take me to another place, according to one of them, ‘we will take her and then one by one, guys’.

Another testimony, recorded by the activist group Op-Anti-Sexual Harassment, shows how women on the square are raped with fingers and objects:

I don't recall any more sounds, noises or words from what happened immediately afterwards. All I remember is hands all over my body, grabbing under the layers of pullovers I was wearing, touching my breasts, opening my bra. More hands on my back and legs, my pants being pulled down. I was trying not to loose balance and not to loose my purse with my phone inside. My empty hand tried to pull my pants back up when I felt fingers inside my ass and shortly after in my vagina. I dropped my purse and pulled up my pants again, or I tried at least. Then more penetration with fingers from the front and the back. I tried to see the end of circle of men, but saw rows and rows of men surrounding me, all pushing towards me. I panicked, and was pushed aside. I remembered my purse, reached to the ground, picked it up and fell on the ground. With one hand I was hanging onto the purse; with the other I tried to pull myself up. Men´'s hands were still on my body and somebody penetrated my vagina again with his hands. I had successfully got up. At that point I remember sounds again and I remember me beginning to shout for help. One man, a few meters away recognized the situation and moved towards me in the middle of maybe forty men, maybe more. He shouted and hit some of the men around me in order to reach me. When I could reach his hand, I simply handed him my purse and grabbed his arm. Then I just hugged the stranger and told him to help me. From behind, my pants were still be pulled down, hands everywhere.
 

Groups like Op-Anti Sexual Harrassment hope that these testimonies will force people to confront what has long been unspeakable. A video they released this week shows a woman being raped on the square. It urges women to demand an end to sexual violence.

Other groups, such as Bussy Project have encourage women to speak about harassment. “Silence is the real disgrace,” one video says. “Speak up and tell your story.”

Some activists have faced public condemnation by identifying themselves and recounting their experiences on television. Yasmin El-Bormay was raped by a gang in Mohamed Mahmoud Street, off Tahrir Square, last week. On private television channel Al-Nahar she displayed ripped clothes, describing how a large group of armed men stripped and sexually assaulted her.

Risking their safety and reputations, women in Egypt are marching on the streets and writing in the media, demanding to be noticed. Political groups have been paying attention, with government and opposition forces condemning the attacks. Although, this does not mean they haven't at times used the issue to score political points. Some opposition accused the Muslim Brotherhood of plotting to disrupt protests by harassing women. The newspaper Al Wafd quoted activist Fathi Farid claiming the Muslim Brotherhood organised gangs to attack women.

Prime Minister Hisham Qandil has also discredited political opponents over the issue. On the website of the Muslim Brotherhood’s political wing, the FJP, he states that who attack women in protests cannot be real revolutionaries. The protests (organised by his political opposition) must be just full of senseless thugs.

However political groups interpret these acts, they are now speaking about them, when before they would not have. Witness testimonies and activism have even created enough pressure that Qandil tasked Cabinet this week with drafting harsher laws on sexual harassment.

 “The way the Egyptian media covered the spate of mob rapes on 25 January made it sound as though women should just stop going to protests in Tahrir Square” protester Sally Zohney told France 24 on Wednesday. “But of course, that’s the goal of rapists and harassers: to scare us off the streets. So we wanted to show them that we won’t be scared away.”

 

An Egyptian activist draws graffiti depicting a woman and reading in Arabic: "No to Sexual Harassement" on a wall outside the presidential palace in Cairo. Photograph: Getty Images
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The lute master and the siege of Aleppo

Luthier Ibrahim al-Sukkar's shop was bombed; when he moved, militants came for him. Over WhatsApp, he told me what's next.

Aleppo was once a city of music, but this year the 400,000 residents who inhabit its eastern suburbs can hear nothing but the roar of Russian warplanes, and ear-shattering blasts from the bombs they drop. To the north, west and south, the city is encircled by ground troops from the Syrian armed forces, Hezbollah and Iran. Most residents are afraid to flee, but soon, now that supply lines to the city have been cut off, many will begin to starve. We have reached the crescendo of Aleppo’s suffering in year five of the Syrian civil war.

One clear August morning in 2012, in the early weeks of the battle for the city, a man approached a street corner shop and found a hundred shattered lutes scattered across the floor. Ibrahim al-Sukkar, the engineer who had made the lutes (Arabs know the instrument as the oud), was overwhelmed. He wandered between the tables of his workshop and peered up at the sky, suddenly visible through holes in the roof. He wept on the floor, amid the dust and ash.

Some of the wooden shards that lay around him had been lutes commissioned by musicians in Europe and America. Others were to be used by students in Damascus and Amman. Each oud was built for a specific purpose. In every shard Ibrahim saw a piece of himself, a memory scattered and charred by government bombs. He packed his bags and headed for Idlib, a few hours to the west, where he set up shop a second time. A year later, his workshop was destroyed again, this time by Islamist militants.

It was at this point that Ibrahim came to a stark realisation – he was a target. If barrel bombs from government helicopters could not succeed in destroying him, the Islamists would. The cost of sourcing materials and getting goods to market had become unmanageable. The society that had inspired his desire to make musical instruments was now trying to lynch him for it.

The 11 string courses of an oud, when plucked, lend the air that passes through its bowl the sounds of Arabic modes known as maqamat. Each one evokes an emotion. Hijaz suggests loneliness and melancholy. Ajam elicits light-heartedness and cheer. An oud player’s competence is judged by his or her ability to improvise using these modes, modulating between them to manipulate the listener’s mood. The luthier, the architect of the oud system, must be equal parts artist and scientist.

This is how Ibrahim al-Sukkar views himself. He is a trained mechanical engineer, but before that he was a lover of classical Arabic music. As a young man in the Syrian countryside, he developed a talent for playing the oud but his mathematical mind demanded that he should study the mechanics behind the music. Long hours in the workshop taking instruments apart led him to spend 25 years putting them together. Ibrahim’s ouds are known for their solid construction and, thanks to his obsessive experimentation with acoustics, the unparalleled volume they produce.

Ibrahim and I recently spoke using WhatsApp messenger. Today, he is lying low in the village where he was born in Idlib province, close to the Turkish border. Every so often, when he can, he sends some of his equipment through to Turkey. It will wait there in storage until he, too, can make the crossing. I asked him if he still felt that his life was in danger. “All musicians and artists in Syria are in danger now, but it’s a sensitive topic,” he wrote, afraid to say more. “I expect to be in Turkey some time in February. God willing, we will speak then.”

Ibrahim’s crossing is now more perilous than ever. Residents of Idlib are watching the developing siege of Aleppo with a sense of foreboding. Government forces are primed to besiege Idlib next, now that the flow of traffic and supplies between Aleppo and the Turkish border has been intercepted. And yet, to Ibrahim, the reward – the next oud – is worth the risk.

I bought my first oud from a Tunisian student in London in autumn 2014. It is a humble, unobtrusive instrument, with a gentle, wheat-coloured soundboard covering a cavernous, almond-shaped bowl. Some ouds are decorated with rosettes, wooden discs carved with dazzling patterns of Islamic geometry. Others are inlaid with mother-of-pearl. My instrument, however, is far simpler in design, decorated only with a smattering of nicks and scratches inflicted by the nails of impatient players, and the creeping patina imprinted by the oils of their fingers on its neck.

My instructor once told me that this oud was “built to last for ever”. Only recently did I discover the sticker hidden inside the body which reads: “Made in 2006 by Engineer Ibrahim al-Sukkar, Aleppo.” 

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle