With reports of mob attacks and gang rape growing alarmingly common in Egypt, angry protesters demonstrated in Cairo on Tuesday, calling for urgently needed protection and harsher punishment of perpetrators of sexual assault.
Though the protest in Cairo’s Talaat Harb Square was peaceful, the slogans were hard-hitting. One banner displayed a warning that rhymed in Arabic: “Sexual assault doesn’t pay. Try again—we’ll cut your hand.”
Concurrent with the Cairo protest, solidarity demonstrations were held in cities around the world, including Amman, Copenhagen, Melbourne, Washington, D.C. and London to denounce the rise of “sexual terrorism” in Egypt.
“There is a virus afflicting the brains of some of these men,” said Karima El Gharib, 35, a political activist who attended Tuesday’s protest in Cairo. “These sick people think that if they scare the women, we will stop our men from going to the protests. We are the country’s women: your sister, your mother. Try and say ‘boo’ to us now and we will destroy you!”
Last month, the United Nations issued a statement expressing “deep concern” after more than two dozen women reported they had been sexually assaulted in Tahrir Square—in some cases, with extraordinary violence—during demonstrations marking the two-year anniversary of the Egyptian revolution.
The activists, though, know that raising awareness of the issue is an uphill battle.
On Monday, the human rights commission for the Islamist-dominated Shura Council held a press conference, provocatively stating that women are to blame for sexual assaults against them. Women “know they are among thugs,” said Adel Afify, a member of the committee representing the ultra-conservative Asala Party. “They should protect themselves before requesting that the Interior Ministry does so. By getting herself involved in such circumstances, the woman bears 100 percent responsibility.” Another member of the council alleged that the tents at protest sites encourage “prostitution.”
While attacks on women have grown increasingly frequent in recent months, they are not a new phenomenon in Egypt. During the popular uprising against then-President Hosni Mubarak, several female journalists were reportedly attacked and sexually violated, including American journalist Lara Logan.
During another attack, caught on camera, a woman was stripped and brutally beaten by military police in December 2011—an assault that focused the attention of human rights groups around the world.
Several groups have emerged in recent months in response to the sexual harassment epidemic—including Egyptian Women; Red Line and Tahrir Bodyguards, a nonpartisan group of men and women tasked with protecting protest-goers against harassment, sexual assault, and rape. Other nonprofit organizations are increasingly offering self-defense classes specifically catered to women. As a group of men moved in on protests Tuesday, seemingly looking for trouble, these groups worked to gather all the women who remained and escort them to safety.
“My mother is my sweetheart,” said Moustafa Mahmoud, who works with his mother as a volunteer. “I can’t sit at home and stay quiet when there are men going and attacking women who are like my mother or my sister.”
The government doesn’t deny the problem—Prime Minister Hisham Qandil said last year that the increase in sexual attacks is a “catastrophe that threatens society.” However, unlike India, which this month responded to popular protests by passing tougher laws cracking down on sexual predators, the Egyptian government, which has been without a Parliament since June, has proposed no new legislation.
“What does our government do? Instead of implementing laws that make sexual assault a crime, they are making the publicity of these attacks a crime,” said Nancy Omar, Mahmoud's mother and the spokeswoman of Egyptian Women; Red Line, a group of volunteers from various political factions united to defend the rights of women. “And then they question our motives for going to these protests—how silly!”
Many human rights groups have urged the Egyptian state to ensure greater protection of women on issues ranging from domestic abuse to divorce settlement rights, and activists have long worked to change attitudes about female genital mutilation, a common practice in more traditional parts of Egyptian society.