A woman shouts slogans with a megaphone during a protest in front of presidential palace in Cairo. Photograph: Getty Images
Show Hide image

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

Getty
Show Hide image

The lute master and the siege of Aleppo

Luthier Ibrahim al-Sukkar's shop was bombed; when he moved, militants came for him. Over WhatsApp, he told me what's next.

Aleppo was once a city of music, but this year the 400,000 residents who inhabit its eastern suburbs can hear nothing but the roar of Russian warplanes, and ear-shattering blasts from the bombs they drop. To the north, west and south, the city is encircled by ground troops from the Syrian armed forces, Hezbollah and Iran. Most residents are afraid to flee, but soon, now that supply lines to the city have been cut off, many will begin to starve. We have reached the crescendo of Aleppo’s suffering in year five of the Syrian civil war.

One clear August morning in 2012, in the early weeks of the battle for the city, a man approached a street corner shop and found a hundred shattered lutes scattered across the floor. Ibrahim al-Sukkar, the engineer who had made the lutes (Arabs know the instrument as the oud), was overwhelmed. He wandered between the tables of his workshop and peered up at the sky, suddenly visible through holes in the roof. He wept on the floor, amid the dust and ash.

Some of the wooden shards that lay around him had been lutes commissioned by musicians in Europe and America. Others were to be used by students in Damascus and Amman. Each oud was built for a specific purpose. In every shard Ibrahim saw a piece of himself, a memory scattered and charred by government bombs. He packed his bags and headed for Idlib, a few hours to the west, where he set up shop a second time. A year later, his workshop was destroyed again, this time by Islamist militants.

It was at this point that Ibrahim came to a stark realisation – he was a target. If barrel bombs from government helicopters could not succeed in destroying him, the Islamists would. The cost of sourcing materials and getting goods to market had become unmanageable. The society that had inspired his desire to make musical instruments was now trying to lynch him for it.

The 11 string courses of an oud, when plucked, lend the air that passes through its bowl the sounds of Arabic modes known as maqamat. Each one evokes an emotion. Hijaz suggests loneliness and melancholy. Ajam elicits light-heartedness and cheer. An oud player’s competence is judged by his or her ability to improvise using these modes, modulating between them to manipulate the listener’s mood. The luthier, the architect of the oud system, must be equal parts artist and scientist.

This is how Ibrahim al-Sukkar views himself. He is a trained mechanical engineer, but before that he was a lover of classical Arabic music. As a young man in the Syrian countryside, he developed a talent for playing the oud but his mathematical mind demanded that he should study the mechanics behind the music. Long hours in the workshop taking instruments apart led him to spend 25 years putting them together. Ibrahim’s ouds are known for their solid construction and, thanks to his obsessive experimentation with acoustics, the unparalleled volume they produce.

Ibrahim and I recently spoke using WhatsApp messenger. Today, he is lying low in the village where he was born in Idlib province, close to the Turkish border. Every so often, when he can, he sends some of his equipment through to Turkey. It will wait there in storage until he, too, can make the crossing. I asked him if he still felt that his life was in danger. “All musicians and artists in Syria are in danger now, but it’s a sensitive topic,” he wrote, afraid to say more. “I expect to be in Turkey some time in February. God willing, we will speak then.”

Ibrahim’s crossing is now more perilous than ever. Residents of Idlib are watching the developing siege of Aleppo with a sense of foreboding. Government forces are primed to besiege Idlib next, now that the flow of traffic and supplies between Aleppo and the Turkish border has been intercepted. And yet, to Ibrahim, the reward – the next oud – is worth the risk.

I bought my first oud from a Tunisian student in London in autumn 2014. It is a humble, unobtrusive instrument, with a gentle, wheat-coloured soundboard covering a cavernous, almond-shaped bowl. Some ouds are decorated with rosettes, wooden discs carved with dazzling patterns of Islamic geometry. Others are inlaid with mother-of-pearl. My instrument, however, is far simpler in design, decorated only with a smattering of nicks and scratches inflicted by the nails of impatient players, and the creeping patina imprinted by the oils of their fingers on its neck.

My instructor once told me that this oud was “built to last for ever”. Only recently did I discover the sticker hidden inside the body which reads: “Made in 2006 by Engineer Ibrahim al-Sukkar, Aleppo.” 

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle