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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United States of Emergency: will the North Carolina riots stain Obama's legacy?

The latest flare up of violence in the US is a reminder that the election of the first black president did not herald a new age of post-racial harmony.

Last April I travelled to Baltimore the morning after the Governor of Maryland had declared a state of emergency in the city, following riots that erupted after the death of Freddie Gray in police custody. Time had just published a poignant article comparing images of disorder on America's streets in 2015 with those 50 years earlier, during the struggles of the civil rights era. However, the scene that greeted my companion and I as we looped round the I-95 into the inner harbour looked more like photos we had seen of Helmand in 2001, or Mosul in 2003. Except this wasn't Baghdad, it was Baltimore – the birthplace of Edgar Allen Poe, Babe Ruth and The Star Spangled Banner. And yet it was clearly a warzone, for how else could you explain the presence of 4,000 national guardsmen, either poking out of armoured vehicles or patrolling the streets with automatic weapons?

During the protests that have erupted in Charlotte, and elsewhere, following the shooting of yet another black man by the police, US Attorney General Loretta Lynch has warned against this kind of violence becoming the “new normal”. As North Carolina governor Pat McCrory declared a state of emergency on Thursday morning, the horrible truth was that the normalcy of it all was plain to see. Such is the frequency with which riot police and even soldiers have been deployed on America's streets over the past few years, that the “United States of Emergency” would not seem like an inaccurate rebranding. Of course all of this civil disobedience plays into the hands of a Republican presidential candidate who is making the restoration of “law and order” one of the central tenets in his bid for power.

It is not hard to see the desperation on Obama's face as he reaches the denouement of his own tenure. While the 44th President's political legacy will be debated for years to come, it is now obvious that one thing it did not herald was a new era of post-racial harmony. America's obsession with symbolism almost willed him to the White House but as so often is the case with US politics: the higher the pretensions, the harder the fall. 

Charlotte doesn't represent anything particularly unique in this long struggle against police racism. It's just another place name to be added to Ferguson, Baton Rouge, St. Paul and dozens of others that could form a particularly grim tourist trail. The horrible truth is that as long as there have been black men in America – especially in places like Charlotte – they have always been unfairly targeted by police. For decades in the South these same forces were the “thin white line” promulgating a form of apartheid against the black majority. The difference now is that 21st century technology allows witnesses to capture and disseminate proof of this worldwide. The power of images to expose racial violence is unquestionable. The campaigner Mamie Till, mother of Emmett, knew this when she published photos of her son's mutilated corpse in 1955. As did George Holliday when he filmed Rodney King's beating in 1991.

There is a kind of despair when it comes to trying to find solutions to America's devastating gun and racial problems. Unfortunately neither presidential candidate seems to offer much hope of significant change. One is perceived as being in thrall to big business (of which the gun lobby represents a significant part) and the other, well, it is not hard to imagine Trump's glee at further proof of how “broken” and disorderly the country is under the Democrats. Both of their reactions to this latest incident have been muted. If either of them care at all about fixing this problem they need to take action and it needs to be drastic. The late comedian Robin Williams once quipped that in Britain the police shout: “Stop! Or I'll shout Stop again”. In America that first “stop” is all too often followed by a much louder sound.

The problem is that whenever a “taskforce” is created to fix the problem – such as Obama's 21st century policing initiative – its recommendations are always non-binding. On top of this is the fact that there are nearly 20,000 distinct police departments in the US representing a myriad of vested interests and demographic differences, and all adhering to slightly different codes of conduct. American police need to revert from a militarised occupying force to a pacific consensual one, perhaps by sending officers out unarmed. Unfortunately the likelihood of this happening with either a Trump, or even Clinton, presidency is sadly close to none. 

Alexis Self is a writer based in New York City.