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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What Brussels can learn from the Italian referendum

Matteo Renzi's proposed reforms would have made it easier for eurosceptic forces within Italy to gain power in upcoming elections in 2018.

The Austrian presidential elections can justifiably be claimed as a victory for supporters of the European Union. But the Italian referendum is not the triumph for euroscepticism some have claimed.

In Austria, the victorious candidate Alexander van der Bellen ruthlessly put the EU centre stage in his campaign. “From the beginning I fought and argued for a pro-European Austria,” he said after a campaign that saw posters warning against “Öxit”.

Austrians have traditionally been eurosceptic, only joining the bloc in 1995, but Brexit changed all that.  Austrian voters saw the instability in the UK and support for EU membership soared. An overwhelming majority now back continued membership.

Van der Bellen’s opponent Norbert Hofer was at an immediate disadvantage. His far right Freedom Party has long pushed for an Öxit referendum.

The Freedom Party has claimed to have undergone a Damascene conversion but voters were not fooled.  They even blamed Nigel Farage for harming their chances with an interview he gave to Fox News claiming that the party would push to leave the EU.

The European Commission, as one would expect, hailed the result. “Europe was central in the campaign that led to the election of a new president and the final result speaks for itself,” chief spokesman Margaritis Schinas said today in Brussels.

“We think the referendum in Italy was about a change to the Italian constitution and not about Europe,” Schinas added.

Brussels has a history of sticking its head in the sand when it gets political results it doesn’t like.

When asked what lessons the Commission could learn from Brexit, Schinas had said the lessons to be learnt were for the government that called the referendum.

But in this case, the commission is right. The EU was a peripheral issue compared to domestic politics in the Italian referendum.

Alberto Alemanno is Jean Monnet Professor of EU Law and an Italian. He said the reforms would have been vital to modernise Italy but rejected any idea it would lead to an Italian Brexit.

“While anti-establishment and eurosceptic actors are likely to emerge emboldened from the vote, interpreting the outcome of the Italian referendum as the next stage of Europe’s populist, anti-establishment movement – as many mainstream journalists have done – is not only factually wrong, but also far-fetched.”

Renzi was very popular in Brussels after coming to power in a palace coup in February 2014. He was a pro-EU reformer, who seemed keen to engage in European politics.

After the Brexit vote, he was photographed with Merkel and Hollande on the Italian island of Ventotene, where a landmark manifesto by the EU’s founding fathers was written.

This staged communion with the past was swiftly forgotten as Renzi indulged in increasingly virulent Brussels-bashing over EU budget flexibility in a bid to shore up his plummeting popularity. 

Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker even publicly reprimanded Renzi for demonising the EU.

Renzi’s vow to resign personalised the referendum. He gave voters a chance to give him a bloody nose when his popularity was at an all-time low.

Some of the reforms he wanted were marked “to be confirmed”.  The referendum question was astonishingly verbose and complex. He was asking for a blank cheque from the voters.

Ironically Renzi’s reforms to the constitution and senate would have made it easier for the eurosceptic Five Star Movement to gain power in upcoming elections in 2018.

For reasons best known to themselves, they campaigned against the changes to their own disadvantage.

Thanks to the reforms, a Five Star government would have found it far easier to push through a “Quitaly” referendum, which now seems very distant.  

As things stand, Five Star has said it would push for an advisory vote on membership of the euro but not necessarily the EU.

The Italian constitution bans the overruling of international treaties by popular vote, so Five Star would need to amend the constitution. That would require a two thirds majority in both houses of parliament and then another referendum on euro membership. Even that could be blocked by one of the country’s supreme courts.

The Italian referendum was closely watched in Brussels. It was hailed as another triumph for euroscepticism by the likes of Farage and Marine Le Pen. But Italians are far more likely to be concerned about the possibility of financial turbulence, which has so far been mildly volatile, than any prospect of leaving the EU in the near future.

James Crisp is the news editor at EurActiv.com.