Egyptians work to reclaim a Tahrir tainted by sexual assault

NOTE: This article contains disturbing content that may be triggering for some readers.

 

By Kristen Chick

The accounts always unfold similarly. They begin with a group of men surrounding a woman during a large protest in Tahrir Square, often after night falls. They form a tight circle, then attack.

They rip off her clothes, sometimes stripping her completely naked, then sexually assault her. Her screams usually only make the violence worse. More men in the crowd join in. Unable to escape, she often describes feeling as if death is near.

The name of Tahrir Square, the epicenter of Egypt's uprising, means liberation. But it has become a place where women feel increasingly unsafe as sexual assaults during protests in the square become more numerous and violent. During a large protest a week ago to mark the second anniversary of the uprising, at least 25 assaults were reported. In one case, a woman was sexually assaulted with a blade.

The escalation of assaults spurred Egyptians to take action against them. Several groups have formed, organizing to prevent such attacks, rescue women who are attacked, and raise awareness about an issue that is not often openly addressed. Today, as thousands gather in Tahrir to protest against President Mohamed Morsi, dozens of volunteers are risking their own safety to try to make the square a place where women can exercise their rights without fear. Police have not been present within the square during protests since the uprising, and those on the edges of it are often engaged in clashes with protesters.

“We can't be silent. We can't tolerate this,” says Mohamed El-Khateeb, one of the volunteers for Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment/Assault, the most organized group working against assault in the square. “I know it's a risky thing. But it's a fight. We shouldn't let them win.”

Organized Effort

 

Sexual harassment of women is a common phenomenon on the streets in Egypt and in Tahrir during protests. Men often make lewd comments or catcalls at passing women, and groping is common. But the moblike sexual assaults in Tahrir are far more violent than the average street harassment, and, according to those working on the issue, appear to be organized attacks.

It was CBS reporter Lara Logan's sexual assault by a crowd in Tahrir square on Feb. 11, 2011, the day former President Hosni Mubarak relinquished power, that first made sexual assault in Tahrir headline news. Female journalists and protesters have continued to face assaults in the square, with attacks on foreign journalists usually gaining more attention than those of Egyptians.

But the attention has done nothing to decrease its prevalence. A rash of assaults during protests in November spurred activists to fight back.

The biggest group is Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment/Assault, known as OpAntiSH, a cooperative effort supported by at least 11 civil society groups and movements. Last week the group had nearly 100 volunteers in Tahrir during the protests.

The group divides volunteers into groups with specific tasks – there are “extraction” teams, whose members try to rescue women from the mobs, and others who carry bags filled with clothes and medical supplies the women might need after the assault. After the women are extricated, they are typically taken to a “safe house” or hospital. Others man the group's hotlines, taking calls reporting assaults and directing volunteers on the ground toward them.

Group members fan out to raise awareness at protests, distributing flyers with the group's hotline and talking with those in the crowd about the issue. They also aim to help victims after the assaults, offering legal, medical, and psychological support.

Other smaller groups have also sprung up, including one called Tahrir Bodyguard. That group also sends lookouts and uniformed patrols of volunteers into the square to help women in trouble. The founders are also organizing a self-defense course.

(To read full article, visit this Christian Science Monitor link)

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