This week was the week that restored my faith in Egypt for reasons entirely unrelated to the ouster of President Mohamed Morsi.
As the end of the 48-hour ultimatum drew near, thousands of protesters flocked to the presidential palace awaiting the army’s statement. The light was slowly fading and the crowd was so dense that, even now at dusk, I could feel the sweat on the man next to me. Normally, this is the moment my body’s “fight or flight” response starts to kick in; when I plan an escape route or try to find a place in the crowd where families or Egyptian women have congregated. It is a fact—not just a fear—that women are regularly victims of rape and brutal sexual assault during protests in Cairo.
But, on the night of July 3, as I stood among the sea of protesters, a deep voice boomed from a megaphone in front of me. “If any man even thinks about touching a woman in this crowd,” the voice said, “then he should die before the thought crosses even his mind.” The crowd roared in response.
On this night, standing in the crowd at the presidential palace, I saw a side of Egypt that I have never seen before, and one that I hope will one day be the new normal. “Make space for the women!” the man with the megaphone shouted, the speakers cutting out at certain points under the sheer ferocity of his words. “A woman’s voice is the voice of the revolution!” he screamed. The crowd roared again.
And then, the crowd began to part. Women walked toward the speakers, and the men formed a circle around them. I stood in the middle, speechless. Shoulder to shoulder, at least a hundred men formed a protective barrier with their bodies to guard their wives, mothers, nieces, and daughters protesting within the circle.
A woman waved to her husband. “They cherish us,” she said, smiling. Her bright purple headscarf made her eyes pop. “They want to keep us safe.”
Some men were not men at all but mere preteens; others had wrinkled faces and graying hair. One man was holding his sleeping toddler whose barrette was falling out of her hair from a long day of dancing next to the palace. All stood with profound purpose, a sense of honor and duty.
The sad reality is that, over the past few years, mob sexual violence has skyrocketed in Egypt. A lack of security and an unstable political situation have only furthered an already disturbing trend of sexual harassment. On July 3 alone, at least 80 cases of sexual assault in Tahrir Square were reported to anti-sexual harassment groups. (Most of the victims were Egyptian women.)
These days, when I get dressed to cover a protest, I always wear a thick leather belt—it’s harder for someone to rip off my pants when I’m wearing a belt. Thankfully, I have never been assaulted while covering protests or working in Egypt. But I am sexually harassed on an almost daily basis. By now I have grown accustomed to having my body groped during political protests. A butt pinch or a boob grab; a group of boys trailing at my heels barking like dogs has become “normal,” part of the job.
This week, Human Rights Watch came out with a powerful report documenting an “epidemic of sexual violence” in Egypt. The report, which included video testimony of Egyptian women who survived nearly fatal sexual attacks in Tahrir Square, was based on information provided by Tahrir Bodyguard and Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment. The two groups—made up of male and female volunteers—tirelessly work to staff sexual-assault hotlines, promote awareness, and deploy uniformed volunteers in Tahrir Square to protect women. The volunteers are often attacked themselves.
“Some men go to Tahrir with the intention of raping female protesters,” said Yara Sultan, a researcher at the women’s group Nazra. The assaults are often quite similar: men encircle a female protester, pushing her, beating her, and dragging her away from her companions. Women have been gang raped and sexually assaulted with sharp objects, requiring emergency surgery to repair their genitalia. Some times women are taken to a dark side street but sometimes, the assault happens right in the square where the crowds are packed so tightly that rescuing her is impossible. As Sultan put it: “Men form circles of hell around women in Tahrir.”
Egyptians demanded change on July 3 and not just change of political leadership but a change in how women are treated. That night, men attacked women. But men also formed a chain to protect them, shaming those who had come to take advantage.
“This time around, people have more ownership of the country, more responsibility,” Sultan said, adding that she has seen the number of people volunteering for her organization triple during these past few days.
Who knows how long it will take. But what I witnessed on July 3 suggests that there’s a wish among both men and women to make the streets safer for women.
As I left the protective circle near the presidential palace, one older gentleman patted me on the shoulder. “Welcome to Egypt, dear,” he said with a kind smile.