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
ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images
Show Hide image

Unlikely sisters in the Gaza Strip

A former Jewish settler in Gaza recalls her childhood friendship with a young Palestinian.

It was well after midnight, one summer night in 1995, when Inbar Rozy, a 13-year-old living in the former Israeli settlement of Alei Sinai in the northern Gaza Strip, heard her parents answer the phone. Sitting up in bed, surrounded by potted plants, candles and fairy dolls lit by shafts of light from a nearby security outpost, Inbar listened closely.

“I could hear everyone talking around me, making calls,” Inbar said when we met recently in Nitzan, southern Israel. When she got up to find out what was happening, her parents told her to make up a second mattress. As dawn broke, they led into the room a young woman carrying a small bag and wearing a black shirt and jeans. “She had shoulder-length dark hair dyed with red henna and beautiful eyes – big, black with thick eyelashes,” Inbar told me, smiling. “[She was] quiet. She looked scared.”

The woman was Rina (her surname cannot be given for security reasons), a talented artist in her early twenties studying at a local art college, where she had fallen in love with a Christian boy. For Rina, coming from a traditional family, marrying a non-Muslim would be strictly forbidden.

When her parents found out, they were furious and forbade her from seeing her boyfriend. But her male cousins felt this wasn’t enough. Earlier on the day the girls first met, Rina’s cousins had attempted to kill her in retribution for her perceived “honour crime”. Seeing that another attempt on her life was likely, Rina’s father called a relative, who in turn called Inbar’s father, Yossef, a friend of many years. There was no doubt she had to leave. Ironically, a Jewish settlement protected by the Israel Defence Forces was the safest place in Gaza for her to be.

In 1967, Israel seized the Gaza Strip from Egypt during the Six Day War. In time, it settled 21 communities on a third of the land, with a population of 8,000 by 2005. Soldiers guarded the settlements from 1.5 million displaced Palestinians, tens of thousands of whom were displaced in 1967 and moved to live in nearby refugee camps. In Gaza, before Israel’s ultimate withdrawal from the Strip in 2005, relationships between Israeli settlers and Palestinians were fraught. True, many Palestinians worked in Israeli settlements, earning wages higher than elsewhere in the Strip, but the two communities lived largely separate lives.

In the mid-1990s, even after the Oslo Accords, violence was simmering. Israeli military incursions increased with the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000. Thousands of home-made Qassam rockets were launched by Palestinian militants at settlers and those living in southern Israel. Security measures hardened. The veteran Israeli journalist Amira Hass, who spent several years living in Gaza, describes neighbourhoods that were “turned into jails behind barbed-wire fences, closed gates, IDF surveillance, tanks and entry-permit red tape”.

And yet, in spite of the forced segregation, Inbar’s family enjoyed close links with their Palestinian neighbours. Inbar’s father worked as an ambulance driver, and on several occasions he helped transport those who lived nearby for emergency medical treatment in Israel. “Every Tuesday, my father’s Jewish and Arab friends would come to our house and we’d eat lunch together,” Inbar remembered.

Given the gravity of Rina’s situation, she couldn’t leave the house. Secrecy was paramount. The girls spent weeks together indoors, Inbar said, chatting, watching TV and drawing. “I’m not sure that as a child I actually understood it for real,” she said. “She taught me how to paint and sketch a face from sight.”

Almost as soon as Rina arrived, Inbar’s family began receiving anonymous phone calls asking about her. “My dad told me, ‘Don’t mention anything about Rina. Say you don’t know what they’re talking about – because otherwise they’ll come and kill us,’” Inbar said.

While the girls got to know each other, Inbar’s mother, Brigitte, found a women’s shelter in East Jerusalem for Rina. Whereas today Gaza is closed off by a military border under heavy surveillance, at that time it was porous. Brigitte drove Rina in to the capital, where she was given a new name and identity that would enable her to begin a new life, on condition that she contact no one in Gaza.

Today Inbar, who is 33, works at the Gush Katif centre in Nitzan – a museum dedicated to the memory of the Israeli settlements in Gaza. Despite her parents’ objections, the family was evacuated in 2005. Unlike most settlers in Gaza, some residents of Alei Sinai were determined to stay on, even if that meant forfeiting their Israeli citizenship. “I have no problem with living as a minority in a Palestinian state,” one of Alei Sinai’s inhabitants, Avi Farhan, told the Israeli daily Haaretz at the time.

Inbar now lives in Ashkelon, a city of 140,000 in southern Israel, and finds the big city alienating, especially when she recalls the warm relationships that once existed in Gaza. “I’ve never felt less secure,” she told me.

Years later, she learned that Rina had developed cancer and died. “The day before Rina left . . . she drew a portrait of me,” she said, describing how her friend had outlined, in charcoal strokes, the features of the teenager. Her parents packed the portrait with all their belongings in a shipping container the day they left Gaza. Soon after, the container was destroyed in a fire.

“I think if people had given it a chance . . . they would have had these kinds of friendships,” Inbar said, looking back. “We’d get along fairly well if we didn’t look at others as the monsters over the wall.” 

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism