Egyptian Salafi preacher Ahmed Mahmoud Abdulla — known as Abou Islam — recently made remarks justifying sexual violence against female protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, claiming that women who join protests are asking “to get raped”. The preacher, who owns private religious television channel Al-Ummah, has previously stirred controversy when he burnt a Bible outside the US Embassy in Cairo during last year’s protests over anti-Islam film the Innocence of Muslims.
In a video posted online last Wednesday, Abdulla said that women who join the protests are “either crusaders who have no shame or widows who have noone to control them”. He also described them as “devils”, and added that “they talk like monsters”.
A few days before he made the controversial statements, at least 19 women were reportedly gang raped in Tahrir Square during a Friday protest marking the anniversary of the January, 2011 mass uprising that toppled authoritarian President Hosni Mubarak. One woman was hospitalised after attackers used a knife to cut her genitals.
Risking stigma and breaking an age-old taboo on sexual violence, many of the women have since spoken out, giving disturbing testimonies of the attacks in interviews published in newspapers and broadcast on radio and television. In a show of solidarity and support for the rape victims, hundreds of women protesters meanwhile staged a rally in downtown Cairo on Wednesday, protesting sexual harassment and demanding an end to sexual violence.
“Women and girls are a red line,” the protesters chanted. Some of the demonstrators brandished kitchen knives to send a message that they were capable of defending themselves.
Sexual harassment has plagued Egypt for decades. In 2008, a study by the Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights (ECWR) revealed that more than 80 per cent of Egyptian women have been subjected to sexual harassment. Since Egypt’s revolution two years ago, there has been a surge in sexual violence against women, and rights activists say that harassment over the past two years has become “more violent and more organised”. The warn that the phenomenon has now reached “epidemic proportion”.
Nehad Abou Komsan, Chairperson of ECWR said that she believes the rise in the number of reported incidents since the revolution may be due to the fact that “in the freer post-revolution environment, more women are willing to speak out against harassment”. In the past, victims of harassment or sexual assault rarely reported the incidents for fear of being blamed or stigmatised. Since the revolution however, both women and the media have broken their silence. In recent months, the issue has been publicly debated a number of times in TV talk shows and has been tackled by local dailies.
The first time such assaults were reported in the press was during Egypt’s 2005 presidential elections, when female journalists were molested and stripped by what were believed to be security forces in plain clothes hired to attack the journalists. The following year, a brutal mob attack on girls celebrating Eid Al Fitr in downtown Cairo sent shockwaves across the nation, bringing the issue of harassment to light.
On 11 February 2011 — the night former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak was forced out — CBS Correspondent Lara Logan was sexually assaulted by a mob of 200 to 300 frenzied men in Tahrir Square, as tens of thousands of jubilant opposition activists celebrated Mubarak’s ouster. Since then, a series of sexual assaults by mobs have been reported, targeting mainly prominent female activists and journalists.
The wave of assaults has led rights campaigners to infer that the “targeted and systematic attacks are being used by the state to keep women away from the protests”. On 8 March 2011, scores of women demanding equal rights at a rally marking International Women’s Day were verbally abused and shoved by bearded men who shouted at them to go home. The following day, several female protesters arrested by the army near Tahrir Square were electrocuted and subjected to humiliating “virginity checks” performed by a male doctor. Samira Ibrahim, one of the young protesters subjected to such a test filed a lawsuit against the then-ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. She won the case and the military promised that such tests would not be performed on female detainees in military prisons in the future. She however, lost a second case against the military doctor she had accused of performing the tests, who was acquitted by a military court. In December 2011, another female protester was stripped down to her bra, dragged by soldiers and beaten during a protest outside the parliament building. A video of the “girl in the blue bra” went viral on the internet , provoking a public outcry and a wave of anti-military protests.
Sexual harassment has increased since protests calling for “the downfall of the Islamist regime” began at the end of last month. The surge in sexual violence in the protest areas has given rise to informal groups like Tahrir Bodyguard and Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment/Assault— initiatives set up by volunteers and rights activists who patrol Tahrir Square during protests, keep track of sexual assault incidents and report them to rights organisations. The volunteers also try and protect female protesters by forming human chains around them or by coming to the rescue of women who are under attack. In their neon vests and helmets, Tahrir Bodyguard members are easy to spot.
Many activists believe that paid thugs are responsible for the spike in recent harassment, which they say is being used to keep female protesters out of Tahrir Square and away from the Presidential Palace.
In a press release issued last Wednesday, Amnesty International stated that rights activists believe that “the state may be behind the organised and coordinated attacks which are aimed at silencing women and excluding them from public spaces.” In most of the assault incidents, similar tactics have been used by the perpetrators to “intimidate and degrade the women”, the statement added.
Morsi’s Islamist supporters meanwhile blame the attacks on former regime loyalists who, they say,” hire thugs to tarnish the image of Islamists”.
“Violence was used by the old regime to silence dissenters. Now, old regime remnants are still using the same methods to further their interests and turn people against the new regime,” argued Walid El Garf, an interpreter with State TV and supporter of President Mohamed Morsi.
Rights activists have called on the government to bring the perpetrators to justice, asking President Morsi to take urgent action to end the culture of impunity.
The Egyptian president has been quick to respond to the call. Last week, he announced via his official Twitter account that a sexual harassment law was currently being drafted and would soon be ratified by the Cabinet. Prime Minister Hesham Qandil has also annnounced that his cabinet was working with civil society organisations and the state-sponsored National Council for Women (NCW) to finalise the law. Mervat El Tellawy, Secretary General of the NCW, has meanwhile urged victims of sexual assault to report incidents to the Council so that legal measures may be taken against the perpetrators. An Interior Ministry source has also said that surveillance cameras would soon be installed in the main squares and on downtown streets to monitor incidents of sexual harassment and assault.
While the increased violence against women has been cause for growing concern, the long-awaited new legislation, the increased willingness of women to speak out and the growing number of NGOs fighting harassment (either by spreading awareness about it, encouraging women to speak out or protecting women during protests) are all encouraging signs of positive change to come. Rights activists welcome the change but insist that more needs to be done to end gender-based discrimination.
“Changing the attitudes of men and women can only take place through education and awareness campaigns, ” said activist Azza Kamel of Fouada Watch, an NGO that has established a round-the-clock hot line for victims to report incidents of sexual harassment, verbal abuse or assaults against women. Kamel also advocates training of the police, traditionally known to take harassment reports lightly . “But above all”she said, there must be zero tolerance for those who incite violence against women (referring to the recent comments by Salafi preacher Abou Islam.)
“Such extremists must be silenced. Incitement is as big a crime as the assault itself”, Kamel added.
Journalist Shahira Amin resigned from her post as deputy head of state-run Nile TV in February 2011. Read why she resigned from the “propaganda machine” here.