A woman shouts slogans with a megaphone during a protest in front of presidential palace in Cairo. Photograph: Getty Images
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Laurie Penny on Cairo: With Tasers and placards, the women of Egypt are fighting back against sexism

Laurie Penny reports from Cairo.

‘‘The youth will liberate Egypt!” A girl in a sky-blue headscarf is yelling and 300 women shout the words back at her outside the Sayyida Zeinab Mosque in central Cairo. Behind the gates of the mosque, men in long robes stare at the growing crowd, growling insults at anyone who comes close, but also curious. “These men, they’ve been brainwashed,” says Fawzie, 68, a retired engineer. “I am angry, devastated. I went several times to Tahrir Square, doing my best to help.

“They want women to stay at home. I want to see liberty.”

For the women of Egypt, freedom from sexist oppression and freedom from state repression are part of the same battle. It is now dangerous for women and girls to go out alone without anticipating sexual and physical assault from mobs of men, from armed police, or both. The story being told by most of the western press is that Egypt’s revolution has been “spoiled” or “tainted” by this pandemic of violent misogyny – but at street level, something else is going on. The question is: whose revolution is this, anyway?

Before we came to the women’s march, my friends and I had been told to wear heavy belts, baggy trousers and several layers, to make it as difficult as possible for attackers to shove their hands inside our clothes.

Rana and Gina, young students who have been part of the revolution since 2011 and have experienced sexual harassment, are holding up placards demanding that passersby acknowledge sexism. “They don’t want us in the revolution. But we are here and none can push us away by raping us, by making women afraid to go out of their homes,” Rana says. “We are fed up. The police don’t listen to us. [They say] you are wearing unsuitable clothes, you deserve to be harassed. We are here to say we are not afraid.”

Gina is smaller, with bright, dyed-red hair poking out from under her hoodie, her voice hoarse with rage as she describes the multiple sexual assaults she has suffered. “It’s like someone takes your soul,” she says. “You feel that you want to kill yourself. It’s like someone beats you and every time you wake up they beat you again. It’s not only sexual harassment – they beat you, pull your hair, tell you awful words, call you a bad woman, call you a prostitute.”

As the march sets off, the women hold knives high in the air, along with more novel weapons – sticks, wooden spoons, vegetable peelers, meat tenderisers – as if they’d marched en masse out of the kitchens of Cairo ready to tenderise the hell out of this patriarchal police state.

Egypt has tolerated a culture of misogyny for many generations. In the past year, however, there has been a change in mood. Women from all walks of life are afraid to go out in the street at all, whether they’re marching to bring down the government or popping to the shop for a pint of milk. Even Tahrir Square, the symbolic political heart of the nation, has become all but impassable to any woman without a hefty male escort.

One of the groups fighting back is Op - AntiSH – pronounced “Oppantish” and standing for Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment – a gang of volunteers, some of them men and many of them women who have been raped and assaulted. OpAntiSH physically stops assaults in Tahrir Square and the surrounding areas, using Tasers, spray paint, fists, force, sticks, anything they can put their hands on to protect women from “mob attacks”. They divide into task-teams with specific jobs: some to summon rescuers to the scene of an assault, some to grab the victim and take her to safety, some to distribute the contents of emergency packs containing spare clothes, water and blankets. It’s all down to them, because the police are far more concerned with attacking protesters than protecting women.

In a flat above Tahrir Square after Friday prayers, activists with OpAntiSH organise into teams to head down to the protest lines. “The significant shift is in how women see the issue,” says Reem Labib, an OpAntiSH member. “We’ve been violated and we will not be silenced. I’ve never seen it like this before. There’s always been this barrier of shame and fear.”

“We believe that a big part of this mob is organised – sexual assault has always been one of the means used by the state to intimidate women. But even so, it’s still relying on the deeper problem in society,” says Tarsi, an OpAntiSH spokesperson whose flat we are in. She makes tea for the shell-shocked women and men pulling on team T-shirts to go out and risk their lives again in the square whose name means freedom. These seven friends, students and charity workers in jeans are fighting a real war – a war for the soul of their revolution, as well as for the lives of women in the streets of Cairo.

Egypt is not the only country where women are bearing the brunt of social frustration and public anger. But the women of Egypt and their allies have understood what the rest of the world has failed so far to grasp – that meaningful social progress cannot exclude women. Western journalists using the sex assault pandemic to imply that Egypt somehow isn’t ready for regime change, to imply that Egyptian men are out of control, have fundamentally misunderstood what this revolution is, and what it can be.

“The question is, whose revolution?” says Amr Gharbeia, one of OpAntiSH’s many young male volunteers. “For conservatives, the revolution has been victorious – it has put them in power. For some people, it stops at just a bit more freedom. But, for some, the revolution has to go further – it has to include freedom for women.”

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 18 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq: ten years on

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The conflict in Yemen is a civil war by numbers

Amid the battles, a generation starves.

Ten thousand dead – a conservative estimate at best. Three million internally displaced. Twenty million in need of aid. Two hundred thousand besieged for over a year. Thirty-four ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia. More than 140 mourners killed in a double-tap strike on a funeral. These are just some of the numerical subscripts of the war in Yemen.

The British government would probably prefer to draw attention to the money being spent on aid in Yemen – £37m extra, according to figures released by the Department for International Development in September – rather than the £3.3bn worth of arms that the UK licensed for sale to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the kingdom’s bombing campaign against one of the poorest nations in the Middle East.

Yet, on the ground, the numbers are meaningless. What they do not show is how the conflict is tearing Yemeni society apart. Nor do they account for the deaths from disease and starvation caused by the hindering of food imports and medical supplies – siege tactics used by both sides – and for the appropriation of aid for financial gain.

Since the war began in March 2015 I have travelled more than 2,500 miles across Yemen, criss-crossing the front lines in and out of territories controlled by Houthi rebels, or by their opponents, the Saudi-backed resistance forces, or through vast stretches of land held by al-Qaeda. On those journeys, what struck me most was the deepening resentment expressed by so many people towards their fellow Yemenis.

The object of that loathing can change in the space of a few hundred metres. The soundtrack to this hatred emanates from smartphones resting on rusting oil drums, protruding from the breast pockets of military fatigues, or lying on chairs under makeshift awnings where flags denote the beginning of the dead ground of no-man’s-land. The rabble-rousing propaganda songs preach to the watchful gunmen about a feeble and irreligious enemy backed by foreign powers. Down the road, an almost identical scene awaits, only the flag is different and the song, though echoing the same sentiment, chants of an opponent altogether different from the one decried barely out of earshot in the dust behind you.

“We hate them. They hate us. We kill each other. Who wins?” mused a fellow passenger on one of my trips as he pressed green leaves of the mildly narcotic khat plant into his mouth.

Mohammed was a friend of a friend who helped to smuggle me – dressed in the all-black, face-covering garb of a Yemeni woman – across front lines into the besieged enclave of Taiz. “We lose everything,” he said. “They win. They always win.” He gesticulated as he spoke of these invisible yet omnipresent powers: Yemen’s political elite and the foreign states entangled in his country’s conflict.

This promotion of hatred, creating what are likely to be irreversible divisions, is necessary for the war’s belligerents in order to incite tens of thousands to fight. It is essential to perpetuate the cycle of revenge unleashed by the territorial advances in 2014 and 2015 by Houthi rebels and the forces of their patron, the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This demand for retribution is matched by those who are now seeking vengeance for the lives lost in a UK-supported, Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign.

More than 25 years after the two states of North and South Yemen united, the gulf between them has never been wider. The political south, now controlled by forces aligned with the Saudi-led coalition, is logistically as well as politically severed from the north-western territories under the command of the Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists. Caught in the middle is the city of Taiz, which is steadily being reduced to rubble after a year-long siege imposed by the Houthi-Saleh forces.

Revenge nourishes the violence, but it cannot feed those who are dying from malnutrition. Blowing in the sandy wind on roadsides up and down the country are tattered tents that hundreds of thousands of displaced families now call home. Others have fled from the cities and towns affected by the conflict to remote but safer village areas. There, food and medical care are scarce.

The acute child malnutrition reported in urban hospitals remains largely hidden in these isolated villages, far from tarmac roads, beyond the reach of international aid agencies. On my road trips across Yemen, a journey that would normally take 45 minutes on asphalt could take five hours on tracks across scrubland and rock, climbing mountainsides and descending into valleys where bridges stand useless, snapped in half by air strikes.

Among the other statistics are the missing millions needed by the state – the country’s largest employer. Workers haven’t been paid in months, amid fears of an economic collapse. This is apparently a deliberate tactic of fiscal strangulation by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government-in-exile. The recent relocation of the central bank from the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a, to the southern city of Aden is so far proving symbolic, given that the institution remains devoid of funds. The workforce on both sides of the conflict has taken to the streets to protest against salaries being overdue.

Following the deaths of more than 140 people in Saudi-led air strikes on a funeral hall on 8 October, Saleh and the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, called for yet more revenge. Within hours, ballistic missiles were fired from within Houthi territory, reaching up to 350 miles into Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, in the Red Sea, Houthi missile attacks on US warships resulted in retaliation, sucking the US further into the mire. Hours later, Iran announced its intention to deploy naval vessels in the area.

Vengeance continues to drive the violence in Yemen, which is being drawn ever closer to proxy conflicts being fought elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet the impact on Yemeni society and the consequences for the population’s health for generations to come are unlikely to appear to the outside world, not even as annotated numbers in the brief glimpses we get of this war. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood