For people in Egypt and around the world, Cairo's Tahrir Square has come to symbolize resistance to tyranny and the universal desire to throw off the chains of oppression. Yet for many women who joined the revolution and have continued to demonstrate in the streets, a new form of tyranny and oppression has emerged — that of sexual violence.
Reports indicate a rise in sexual violence against women in Egypt. While accurate statistics on the number of attacks are not available, anecdotal evidence from numerous sources supports this claim. On February 6, Amnesty International released a report detailing the events of January 25, in which multiple female activists “were encircled by the mob and countless hands groped their bodies, including their breasts, genitals and buttocks; pulled their hair, tugged their bodies in different directions; and attempted in some cases successfully, to remove their clothes.”
Egyptian women are not the only ones threatened; on February 11, 2011 CBS reporter Lara Logan reported that she was “attacked by 200 to 300 men who raped her with their hands.” Later that year, AFP journalist Caroline Sinz and a female French journalist both reported being surrounded by mobs of young men who forcefully touched and sexually assaulted them.
While some articles have reported that Egyptian women “were doing better under Mubarak,” the reality is that women did not have an easy time under the previous regime either. According to a 2009 joint study by the National Council for Women, the Media Watch Unit, and the Cairo University Centre for Research on Women and Media that examined 64 television drama shows, 71% contained scenes of domestic violence and 28% contained scenes of community violence. Rasha Abdallah, an associate professor at the American University in Cairo, commented that “media . . . [has started] . . . setting the standards of societal relationships . . . Beating up a woman, humiliating her is becoming a measure of manhood.”
The current surge in media reports concerning violence against women has not gone unnoticed in the Egyptian halls of power. Last March, President Mohamed Morsi declared an initiative to support women’s rights and freedoms. In his announcement, he noted that 61% of Egyptian women are illiterate and 27% remain unemployed, figures that he used to underscore the necessity of his initiative. However, this declaration may partially be in response to reports that violence against women costs the Egyptian economy $93.5 million in direct losses due to the absence of women from work and those who seek medical treatment.
Despite the Morsi government’s public relations campaign, many Egyptian politicians and religious notables place the blame for these crimes squarely at the feet of the women themselves. Adel Afify, a member of the Shura Council, commented, “Sometimes, the girl herself is full responsible for rape because she puts herself in this situation.” Popular television cleric and personality Ahmed Mohammed Abdullah, more commonly know as Abu Islam, stated that women who get attacked are mostly Christians, “and the rest are widows with no one to rein them in.”
While the recent revolution in Egypt was not the first, it is by far the most important. Egypt has for centuries been a leader for the Arab world. While the country continues on its path of political self-determination, it must remember that the way it treats its citizens, both male and female alike, will play an incalculable role in where that path leads.