Around 5 p.m. on June 30, a large march headed over the 6th of October Bridge, toward Tahrir Square. A middle section of some 200 women chanted against President Mohamed Morsi.
The women were surrounded by men, who formed a circle around them, preventing other men from squeezing into the women’s section. As the march passed, a 40-something Egyptian man yelled at the crowd, “Look, they’re protecting the women. What sexual harassment are they talking about?”
That sentiment has been echoed by others who have denied the horrific reports of rampant sexual assaults in the country over the past few days. Those who say the attacks never happened are mostly men.
Videos and reports from groups like Op Anti-Sexual Harassment/Assault, known as Opantish, have underscored the frightening reality facing the female participants in Egypt’s historic demonstrations, which began Sunday.
Men are seen huddled around women in what looks like a massive fight. It is nearly impossible to distinguish who is attempting to save the women and who is doing the assaulting. Iron sticks, small lit gas containers, and hundreds of fingers and hands merge.
Women speak of wild chaos and panic. Faces blur in the madness. Women drift under or with the crowd. Their minds and bodies bear witness to unimaginable cruelty.
On the evening of June 30, at least 46 mob assaults were perpetrated against women, yet unreported incidents are believed to be much greater, Opantish reports. These women were assaulted, raped, and attacked, sometimes with knives and other objects. Survivors need psychological and often medical assistance. Not only are they forced to come to terms with the trauma, but often they are challenged by skeptics. Some Egyptians find it difficult to believe such inhumanity could take place alongside such awe-inspiring protests.
While the assault and gang rape of a Dutch journalist sparked international headlines, it is Egyptian women who bear the brunt of these attacks in the square, in what has become commonplace at major gatherings in the country in recent years.
“We know in the past when we have gone down to Tahrir there was a group of instigators, four or five, and then people around them start participating in the attack against the woman,” Danya Nadar, a spokeswoman from Opantish, told The Daily Beast.
Even as Nadar was speaking Tuesday evening, an Opantish volunteer spotted a man attempting to instigate another attack.
The incidents of the past few days, including dozens reported by groups like Opantish on Tuesday night Cairo time, are part of a series of violent attacks against women at mass protests since the fall of Hosni Mubarak in February 2011.
Similar assaults were reported in November 2012 during mass demonstrations against Morsi, including the use of knives and other objects.
“There is no limit,” said Nadar. “Some are able to get out when people who truly want her out of the mob intervene and get her out safely, but it is very difficult when there are almost 50 to 100 men surrounding the girl and violently attacking her.”
“Unfortunately, the range of violence is from verbal harassment all the way to a woman dragged from one end of the square to the other by a mob of 100 men violently stripping and assaulting her,” Nadar said.
“This is the reality Egyptian women face today,” she added. “Our role today is to break the myth that this does not happen in Egypt and that this is targeting women according to their dress codes. As we saw in December 2011, the Egyptian Army stripped and beat a woman wearing a niqab in the middle of the square, and all people could talk about was what was she doing there [and] why was she wearing a blue bra.”
Opantish and other groups that aim to end sexual violence against women in Tahrir and across Egypt have laid the blame on protest organizers and the ruling government, led by the Muslim Brotherhood.
Nadar pointed to statements made in February in the Shura Council, the Upper House of Parliament, as evidence that the government is not doing enough to curtail the violence:
“Girls who join [the protests] do so knowing they are in the middle of thugs and street types. She must protect herself before asking the Ministry of the Interior to do so. Sometimes a girl contributes 100 percent to her rape because she puts herself in those circumstances.”
As crowds continue to protest against Morsi in the square, women’s safety is again a growing concern.
Egyptian women on Twitter and Facebook, including a number of female journalists, have reported being groped and harassed in Tahrir.
The increased sexual violence perpetrated against them—and the lack of guarantees for their rights in the draft constitution—means women in Egypt are facing as uncertain a future as they have in modern times.
Joseph Mayton contributed to this article