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

Photo: Pablo via Creative Commons
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Is Lithuania still homophobic? My girlfriend and I held hands to find out

The Lonely Planet guide warned that for gay and lesbian travelers, "small displays of public affection can provoke some nasty responses".

It’s midnight somewhere on the greyish outskirts of Vilnius, and my girlfriend has just burst out laughing. Our Uber driver starts laughing too. Nonplussed, I scan the oppressively functional Soviet-era architecture we’re driving past for literally anything funny.

Then I see them. A series of panels above the stairway to a basement bar; photos of topless blonde men with glistening six packs. This is – as is usually the case – either a tribute to the most homoerotic scenes in Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, or something deliberately gay. And 99 out of 100 it’s the latter, this being no exception.

Soho Club is the most out-of-context gay venue I’ve ever seen. It sits on a poorly lit street on the edge of Lithuania’s capital, almost as if it’s been plucked out of the city centre and dumped there.

Given the staunchly Catholic and formerly communist Baltic state’s uneasy relationship with its LGBTQ community, this wouldn’t be particularly surprising.

According to the Lonely Planet guide to the Baltic States for gay and lesbian travelers, "small displays of public affection can provoke some nasty responses".

Homosexuality was only decriminalised here in 1993. And, any legislative victories aside, a 2009 poll found that attitudes amongst the population were much the same as the pre-1993 days. Eight in ten respondents considered homosexuality to be anywhere between a perversion and a disease. 

Such a gay-hostile place probably seems like an odd choice for a romantic getaway with my girlfriend, on my birthday weekend. Then again an itinerary like ours, which includes a visit to the both the Museum of the Victims of Genocide, and the Holocaust exhibition at the Jewish museum, is hardly "gondola ride in Venice" or "Eiffel Tower at sunset". This is a stark, ex-Soviet, mostly-raining introduction to being gay outside of the liberal London bubble. Which is to say: dreamy.

Having said that, Vilnius’s cobbled old town is beautiful and, compared to other more mainstream Eastern European capitals, decidedly less stag night-y. Same-sex couples, it turns out, can be drawn to a city for features other than its queer nightlife. 

On the short walk from Vilnius’s central train station to our Airbnb, we passed a mural of Donald Trump smoking a spliff and giving Vladimir Putin blowback. A definite tribute to the gay kiss between the USSR's Brezhnev and East Germany's Honecker depicted on the Berlin Wall.

It was hard to tell what this said about the area’s attitude towards queers, but it was on the side of a bar that’s blasting out Black Lips and full of Lithuanian hipsters in their twenties. Say what you like about hipsters, they are not known for gay-hate. It was difficult to imagine anyone in there giving much of a shit about our sexuality.

At the Airbnb, we were greeted by one such Lithuanian hipster. She was about 20 and seemed a little nervous speaking to us, even though her English was near fluent.

The flat – an immaculate new build – was decked out in Ikea classics. Like the bar with the homoerotic Trump/Putin mural, anywhere with a Malm just seems to radiate gay-friendliness. It’s both sterile and PC. Like the Lib Dems, or a free sachet of lube.

Our host gave us a brief lesson in how to work the flat, before saying a polite goodbye. We’d just started unpacking when there was a knock on the door. It turned out the host had done a 180.

"One last thing," she said, "Do you need an extra duvet, or are you… sharing the bed?"

OH GOD, I thought. This is it. This is the kind of shit you read about. You never do read about anything good.

"Yeah, we’re sharing," I said, feeling both – I hate to say – embarrassed about being in a same-sex relationship, and embarrassed about being embarrassed about being in a same-sex relationship.

"OK, cool. No questions!" said the host, before disappearing into the afternoon at the speed of sound.

"No questions," I repeated, "Hmm."

Just to be clear, no, this wasn’t exactly a hate crime. I’m also reluctant to judge a 20-year-old from a very religious country for – well – judging us. And anyway, maybe "no questions" meant "no judgment". Who am I to… judge?

We’d been in Lithuania for about an hour before my girlfriend and I decided to really test the water and hold hands in the street. Mostly, we were starting to wonder if we were being xenophobic by assuming Lithuanians were probably homophobic.

This, I suppose, is the point at which bigotry really starts to eat itself. Unfortunately though, almost the moment we held hands, a group of...shaven headed individuals, who wouldn’t look out of place in a modern day pogrom, walked past, staring us down as if we’d stopped there for a spot of mid-street fisting.

I made brief eye contact with one of them as I let go of my girlfriend’s hand as fast as a bottle of water at airport security.

"Oh," I said to her, when – as far as we knew – Vilnius’s only out homophobes were at a safe distance. "Yeah…" she said.

There are parts of the world – Uganda, Russia and, most recently, Chechnya –  where both socially and legislatively speaking, things are actually getting worse for queer people. But, the overarching narrative is "it gets better". Visiting anywhere with less good attitudes towards The Gays than I’m used to feels like a step back in time.

I wonder, in terms of acceptance of, say, two women holding hands, which decade in London is reflected in 2017 Vilnius. The 80s? The 70s? I’ve only been gay in London since 1989. And back then – as far as I know – I wasn’t a particularly dykey baby. 

So began a weekend-long game of political PDA. We walked through the cobbled streets of the old town, admiring baroque churches and wondering if we were allowed to be a couple near them.

Without a strict set of rules, every stranger’s glance is open to interpretation. My interpretation being, "Let’s just not make a scene, OK?", my girlfriend’s interpretation being, "Stop being paranoid and xenophobic. No one cares."

In the evening, as we sat in a busy restaurant eating zeppelins (remarkably dense Lithuanian potato dumplings, not airships) we spotted – lo and behold – what we (homophobically?) thought might be another gay couple.

Two men in their twenties stood waiting for a table. They had professionally shaped eyebrows. One of them had earrings. In Nineties terms, they were gay as fuck. At a dumpling joint in Vilnius, at ten at night, who the hell knows? And, more to the point, why the hell should they care? Well, when your relationship has been reduced – via queer invisibility – to a handholding battle, you’re kind of desperate to find another same-sex couple.

"Are they…" I said.

"They must be," she said.

"Should we…?"

"NO."

I’m not even too sure what I was asking we "should" do (speak to them? Buy them drinks? Demand a gay tour of Vilnius?), or why I was shut down without finishing my sentence. Whatever we should or shouldn’t have done, we didn’t.

But back to Soho Club. The car stops and we leave behind our bewildered and slightly too amused Uber driver. Tentatively, as if approaching an ancient Egyptian tomb by lamplight, we walk down the stairs past the muscle man panels.

The complete silence – not even interrupted by passing traffic – doesn’t exactly say "buzzing" or… "Soho". Inevitably, almost, the bar is closed. In fact, it’s arguably the most closed bar I’ve ever seen. We’ve turned up, ready to party with Lithuania’s finest gays, at a giant lead box. What’s more, we look around us and realise we’ve strayed into Murder Town.

On our way to the nearest bus stop, we pass a life-size fiberglass cow devoid of any explanation, and a lit-up poster that looks startlingly like an ad for dead babies. The streets get wider and desolate-er until we’re at a petrol station, holding hands out of pure fear. On my part at least. If this is Vilnius’s gay scene, I’d like to give it some kudos at least for quite strongly resembling a David Lynch film.

Having somehow not been sawn into pieces and turned into outsider art, we find ourselves back at Vilnius airport the next day. While idly internetting on her phone, my girlfriend notices our Airbnb host has reviewed us as guests.

"Leonore and her friend are very friendly people!" she wrote.

In all fairness, I have shared beds in Airbnbs with friends. And whether or not someone is tiptoeing around my sexuality like a puddle of something that may or may not be wee, it’s always nice to be considered friendly. And to have "friends".

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.

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