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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What’s it like to be a human rights activist in post-Pussy Riot Russia?

It is five years since the feminist punk collective crashed Moscow’s Cathedral in a performance that got some of them jailed.

On 21 February 2012, five brightly-dressed members of Russian feminist punk collective Pussy Riot took to the altar of Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour to protest links between the Russian Orthodox Church and its “chief saint” Russian President Vladimir Putin. “Virgin birth-giver of God, drive away Putin!” they shouted from beneath now-iconic balaclavas.

The “Punk Prayer” was both a political statement and a powerful feminist message. Six months later, a judge sentenced three of the girls to two years in prison (one was rapidly released) on a conspicuously apolitical conviction of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred”.

These past five years, Russia’s involvement in crises in Syria and Ukraine has cast a dark shadow over relations with an increasingly cleaved-off West. The year 2015 saw opposition politician Boris Nemtsov murdered some 500 metres from the Kremlin walls.

Domestically, society has constricted people challenging the political status quo. However, low-key initiatives retain traction.

“Artists are simply silent,” says Russian curator and gallerist Marat Guelman, who left for Montenegro in early 2015. “It is better not to say anything about politics, it is better to bypass these issues.”

This is a major difference from five years ago. “Despite persecution against Pussy Riot, people were not afraid to defend them,” he says. “It was a better time.”

There are three topics artists and curators now avoid, says artist and feminist activist Mikaela. One is “homosexuality . . . especially if it involves adolescents”, she says, citing a 2015 exhibit about LGBT teens called “Be Yourself”. Authorities closed it and interrogated the galley owner. “Then the war in Ukraine,” she says. “Russian Orthodoxy is the third topic you cannot tackle.”

Marianna Muravyeva, a law professor at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, says that aside from the government completely discarding human rights rhetoric, the most significant legal change is the “gay propaganda” law and “legislation against those who insult the feelings of believers”.

The latter came into force in July 2013. Since then, the Orthodox Church has made deeper societal incursions. Muravyeva says that the secular nature of the Soviet Union led to residual feelings of guilt towards the Church – and now it uses that “capital”.

Mikaela observes a “cultural expansion”, citing a new TV channel, radio station and three new churches in her neighbourhood alone.

Orthodox activist attacks on exhibits have increased. In August 2015, they targeted an exhibit at one of Moscow’s most prominent art galleries. Its perpetrators were found guilty of “petty hooliganism” and handed a 1,000 rouble fine (£14 by today’s rates).

“Any word written in Old Slavonic lettering is spirituality,” says Guelman. “Any work of art by a modern artist . . . depravity, sin, the impact of the West.”

Similar groups are active across Russia, and galleries err on the side of caution. Perpetrators, while self-organised, believe their actions to be state-sanctioned, says Muravyeva. They are influenced by “the kinds of messages” conveyed by the government. 

Nowadays, self-organisation is integral to artistic expression. Mikaela witnessed educational institutions and foreign foundations telling artists “we are with you”, “we know you are smart” but they cannot host political works for fear of closure. Not knowing where the “invisible line” lies foments uncertainty. “It’s self-censorship,” she says.

Dissident artist Petr Pavlensky, notorious for nailing his scrotum to the Red Square in late 2013 (“Fixation”) and setting fire to the doors of the FSB in 2015, advocates personal agency.

“Fixation” was about a sense of helplessness in Russia that must be overcome; he tried to convey the amount of power the castrated have. “Pavlensky says, ‘Look, I have even less than you’,” says Guelman. The artist and his partner Oksana Shalygina are now in France intending to seek asylum after sexual assault accusations.

Some rise to the opportunity, such as Daria Serenko. She rides the Moscow Metro carrying political posters as part of Tikhy Piket or “Silent Protest”. Her 12 February sign depicted a girl with her head in her arms inundated by the comments received if a women alleges rape (“she was probably drunk”, “what was she wearing?”).

However, as a lone individual in a public space, she experienced hostility. “Men, as always, laughed,” she posted on Facebook afterwards. Earlier this month an anonymous group pasted painted plants accompanied by anti-domestic violence messages around Omsk, southwestern Siberia.

Their appearance corresponded with Putin signing legislation on 7 February decriminalising domestic abuse that causes “minor harm”. While it doesn’t specifically mention women, Muravyeva says that the message “women can manage on their own” is a “disaster”.

On 27 January, after Russia’s parliament passed the final draft, pro-Kremlin tabloid Life released a video (“He Beats You Because He Loves You”) showing how to inflict pain without leaving a mark.

Heightened social awareness is aided by online networks. Since “Punk Prayer”, the proportion of people using the internet in Russia has exploded. In 2011, it was 33 per cent, while in 2016 it was 73 per cent, according annual Freedom House reports. Authorities have concurrently exerted stronger controls over it, eg. targeting individual social media users through broadly-worded laws against “extremism”.

Last July, the hashtag #ЯНеБоюсьСказать (“#IamNotAfraidtoSay”) went viral. Women documented experiences of sexual violence. Russian organisation Сёстры (“Sisters”), which helps survivors receive psychological support, receives “250-350” crisis calls annually.

“Over the past year, the number of applications increased,” because of the hashtag, it says. New media platforms Meduza and Wonderzine also emerged as more “socially aware” outlets. Previously “all we had was LiveJournal communities,” Mikaela says.

Bottom-up challenges are partially due to a generational shift. “Nobody bothered before,” says Muravyeva. “Those children who were born after ‘95 . . . they were already born in a very free society – they don’t know what it is to be afraid, they don’t know what it is to be self-censoring, what it is to be really scared of the state.”

Aliide Naylor is a British journalist and former Arts and Ideas Editor of The Moscow Times.

> Now read Anoosh Chakelian’s interview with Nadya Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot