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
Getty
Show Hide image

It's easy to see where Berlin is being rebuilt – just hit the streets

My week, from walking the streets of Berlin to class snobbery and the right kind of gentrification.

Brick by brick, block by block, the people are rebuilding the city once called Faust’s Metropolis. To see it clearly, put your boots on. One of the most bracing walks starts by the Gethsemane Church, which served as a haven for dissenters in the last days of the GDR and takes you down ­towards the Hackescher Markt.

Here, in what is still the eastern half of a divided city that wears its division more lightly, is a Berlin experience both old and new. In three decades of frequent visits, it has been fascinating to note how much this part of town has changed. Even a decade ago these streets were rundown. With crumbling buildings showing bulletholes, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the place looked like in 1945. Now there are lilacs, blues, and yellows. Cafés, bars and restaurants abound, serving the young professionals attracted to the city by cheap rents and a renewed sense of community.

 

Breaking the fourth wall

Looking north along Schliemannstraße, you’ll find a delightful vista of well-tended balconies. It’s a pleasant place to live, notwithstanding the gaggle of grotesques who gather round the corner in the square. On Kastanienallee, which forms the second leg of the walk, an old city feels young. It’s a kind of gentrification but the right kind. There’s more to eat, to drink, to buy, for all.

Berlin, where Bertolt Brecht staged his unwatchable plays, was supposed to have been transformed by a proletarian revolution. Instead, it has been restored to health by a very middle-class one. Germany has always had a well-educated middle class, and the nation’s restoration would have impossible without such people. The irony is delicious – not that irony buttered many parsnips for “dirty Bertie”.

 

The new snobbery

The British Museum’s survey of German history “Memories of a Nation” is being presented at the Martin-Gropius-Bau as “The British View”. Germans, natürlich, are curious to see how we observe them. But how do they see us?

A German friend recently in England  said that the images that struck him most forcibly were the tins of food and cheap booze people piled up in supermarkets, and the number of teenage girls pushing prams. Perhaps Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum who will shortly take up a similar role here at the new Humboldt Forum, may turn his attention to a “German View” of the United Kingdom.

There’s no shortage of material. In Schlawinchen, a bar that typifies Kreuzberg’s hobohemia, a college-educated English girl was trying to explain northern England to an American she had just met. Speaking in an ugly modern Mancunian voice that can only be acquired through years of practice (sugar pronounced as “sug-oar”), she refer­red to Durham and York as “middle class, you know, posh”, because those cities had magnificent cathedrals.

When it comes to inverted snobbery, no nation can match us. To be middle class in Germany is an indication of civic value. In modern England, it can mark you as a leper.

 

Culture vultures

The Humboldt Forum, taking shape by the banks of the Spree, reconsecrates the former site of the GDR’s Palace of the Republic. When it opens in 2018 it will be a “living exhibition”, dedicated to all the cultures of the world. Alexander von Humboldt, the naturalist and explorer, was the brother of Wilhelm, the diplomat and philosopher, whose name lives on in the nearby university.

In Potsdamerplatz there are plans to build a modern art museum, crammed in between the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Philharmonie, home to the Berlin Philharmonic. Meanwhile, the overhaul of the Deutsche Staatsoper, where Daniel Barenboim is music director for life, is likely to be completed, fingers crossed, next autumn.

Culture everywhere! Or perhaps that should be Kultur, which has a slightly different meaning in Germany. They take these things more seriously, and there is no hint of bogus populism. In London, plans for a new concert hall have been shelved. Sir Peter Hall’s words remain true: “England is a philistine country that loves the arts.”

 

European neighbours

When Germans speak of freedom, wrote A J P Taylor, a historian who seems to have fallen from favour, they mean the freedom to be German. No longer. When modern Germans speak of freedom, they observe it through the filter of the European Union.

But nation states are shaped by different forces. “We are educated to be obedient,” a Berlin friend who spent a year at an English school once told me. “You are educated to be independent.” To turn around Taylor’s dictum: when the English speak of freedom,
they mean the freedom to be English.

No matter what you may have heard, the Germans have always admired our independence of spirit. We shall, however, always see “Europe” in different ways. Europe, good: we can all agree on that. The European Union, not so good. It doesn’t mean we have to fall out, and the Germans are good friends to have.

 

Hook, line and sinker

There are fine walks to be had in the west, too. In Charlottenburg, the Kensington of Berlin, the mood is gentler, yet you can still feel the city humming. Here, there are some classic places to eat and drink – the Literaturhauscafé for breakfast and, for dinner, Marjellchen, a treasure trove of east Prussian forest delights. Anything that can be shot and put in a pot!

For a real Berlin experience, though, head at nightfall for Zwiebelfisch, the great tavern on Savignyplatz, and watch the trains glide by on the other side of Kantstraße. Hartmut Volmerhaus, a most amusing host, has been the guvnor here for more than 30 years and there are no signs that his race is run. The “Fisch” at twilight: there’s nowhere better to feel the pulse of this remarkable city. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage