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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Why the world depends on our attitude towards ten-year-old girls

A new report by the United Nation Population Fund finds that our collective future rests on how we support the world’s 60 million ten-year-old girls as they start their journey from adolescence to adulthood.

Take a moment to imagine a ten-year-old girl right now. What do you see? Is she in school? Is she laughing with friends? Do you imagine her riding a bike or playing ball? On roller skates or en pointe in ballet class?  With her nose in a book or her eyes on a chess board?

Or perhaps you imagined a different scene, one that still plays out daily in many parts of the world: a girl who wakes up in the morning and finds out that she’ll be married that afternoon and taken out of school forever, a girl who will be forced to start bearing children as soon as her body allows it, and will stop being a child and start being a labourer in the home.

This is the tragic reality for millions of ten-year-old girls as they approach puberty.

While in some places, age ten can be a time of exploration, expanding horizons and new possibilities, in others it can be a time where barriers emerge, limiting options, choices and opportunities.

Many girls are transformed from children with rights and aspirations, into brides, free labour or objects of exploitation – forever excluded from decisions about their lives and blocked from realising their full potential.

This is a grave and unforgivable injustice and a violation of girls’ fundamental rights. And whenever a girl’s future is derailed in this way, her household, community and nation also suffer.

With no freedom to make choices, get an education and find a good job, she will never have the power to participate in the affairs of her community and contribute to her country’s development.

But when a girl is protected from child marriage, is able to stay in school and make her own decisions about whether or when to become pregnant, the potential gains to her – and her society – are huge.

Each extra year a girl stays in high school, for example, delivers an 11.6 per cent increase in her average annual wage for the rest of her life. In India alone, there are over 12 million ten-year-old girls of whom nearly 900,000 will not move from primary to secondary school this year. If half of those 900,000 girls finished secondary school and later got a job, they could together earn almost $2m over the next 15 years.

In fact, if all the ten-year-old girls living in developing countries today were able to finish high school and make their own decisions about marriage and parenthood, they would together earn an estimated $21bn by the time they reach 25.

In most developing and middle-income countries, a girl who stays in school, gets a job and delays pregnancy will earn up to three times as much in her lifetime as her counterpart who does not finish high school and becomes pregnant as an adolescent.

And research has shown that a girl who makes a safe and healthy transition through adolescence to adulthood has higher status in her household and community and invests earnings back into her household, setting in motion a virtuous cycle of social and economic empowerment that can last for generations.

The benefits of keeping a ten-year-old girl’s life on track are indisputably large.

According to The State of World Population 2016, published today by UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund, keeping every ten-year-old girl’s life on track is possible, but it requires support from, and investments by, everyone around her – her family, community and government. Men and boys also have a critical role in tearing down the barriers that prevent girls from realising their full potential.

So what can be done?

First, end all practices that harm girls. This means, for example, enacting and enforcing laws that prohibit child marriage.

Second, enable girls to stay in school, at least through high school. Study after study has shown the longer a girl stays in school, the less likely she is to become pregnant as an adolescent and the more likely to grow up healthy and join the paid labour force.

Third, provide extra support to marginalised and impoverished girls who have traditionally been left behind.

Make sure girls, before they reach puberty, have access to information about their bodies. Later in adolescence, they need information and services to protect themselves from unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, including HIV.

And above all, take steps to protect girls’ – and everyone’s – rights.

We have every reason to prioritise the development of every girl’s capabilities. Our collective future depends on it.

Today’s 60 million ten-year-old girls will be 24 when progress towards the United Nations’ new development agenda is tallied in 2030.

That agenda aims for inclusive, equitable and sustainable development that leaves no one behind. The real test of its success will be whether every ten-year-old girl today will be healthy, educated and productive in 2030.

The world cannot afford to squander the potential of even one more girl. Instead, we must do everything in our power to ignite that potential – for her sake and for the sake of us all.

Dr Babatunde Osotimehin is the United Nation Population Fund’s (UNFPA) Executive Director.