It's easy to look at what's unfolding in Egypt with awe and admiration for the citizens courageous enough to rise together against a repressive government. The beautiful images, the emotion evoking videos, and the collective bold chants have become iconic symbols all around the world. Although the massive protests and coup that ensued are emblematic of a successful collective effort, there's a darker side to this revolution, one that many would prefer not to see.
Since the beginning of the protests on Sunday, women have been the target of cruel, systematic and organized attacks by fellow so-called 'revolutionaries' on the streets of Cairo. Human Rights Watch has been following this issue on the ground and is noticing an increase in the prevalence of sexual assault in Tahrir Square.
"The rampant sexual attacks during the Tahrir Square protests highlight the failure of the government and all political parties to face up to the violence that women in Egypt experience on a daily basis in public spaces. These are serious crimes that are holding women back from participating fully in the public life of Egypt at a critical point in the country’s development," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.
Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment/Assault there reports that 46 attacks were confirmed on June 30, 17 the next day, and 23 the day after that. During Wednesday's coup, there were many reported assaults as well. Human Right Watch is now confirming that there were at least 100 sexual assaults in Tahrir Square in the past five days.
Moreover, the perpetrators seem to be working in packs and aggressively attacking women in a pre-meditated way.
"Based on survivor and witness accounts, it appears that the attacks have tended to follow similar patterns. Typically a handful of young men at demonstrations single out a woman and encircle her, separating her from her friends. During the attacks – which have lasted from a few minutes to more than an hour – the number of attackers increases and they grope the woman’s body and try to remove her clothing. The attackers often drag the woman to a different location while continuing to attack her," Human Rights Watch reports.
The media reported the brutal gang rape of a 22-year-old Dutch journalist who was forced to undergo surgery for severe injuries, but there were many other horrifying cases that have simply been swept under the rug. Human Rights Watch reports that women are being "beaten with metal chains, sticks, and chairs, and attacked with knives. In some cases they were assaulted for as long as 45 minutes before they were able to escape. One woman required surgery after being raped with a "sharp object."
Citizen groups have been stepping up their presence to stop attackers in their tracks. On average, about 100 volunteer body guards from Tahrir Bodyguards and Op Anti-Sexual Harassment have been patrolling the streets. Maria Sanchez Munoz, the co-founder of Tahrir Bodyguards is one of them. She's seen what happens in the streets of Cairo first hand. "I can’t even call it harassment anymore ... it’s sexual terrorism," Sanchez Munoz told Vocativ.
Sanchez Munoz said that the group had prevented 15 sexual attacks on Sunday alone and in three cases, saved the lives of the victims. Op Anti-Sexual Harassment said that one of the situations they intervened on involved a grandmother and her daughter accompanied by a 7-year-old child on Monday night.
Why is sexual assault so rampant? Some say it's thugs who know that they won't get caught because of the lack of security. Others are confident the root of the problem is structural. Some Egyptian men just don't want to see women participate fully in the protests because it stains the image of the anti-government demonstrations.
Whatever the reason for these assaults, it brings back memories from the Egyptian Revolution in 2011 where sexual assaults were frequent and rarely condemned. After journalist Lara Logan's sexual assault made the front page of all major news outlets, she was blamed for letting her "shockingly good looks" lure her attackers, or told that her "liberal belief system" was responsible for her gang rape. To be clear, these aren't quotes from the coverage she received in Egypt, these are (just some) excerpts from the media in the United States. Rape culture doesn't know borders. Even when sexual assault happens overseas, the way we cover it, the way we talk about it shapes the culture of impunity that allows it to persist.
The sexual violence in Egypt is showing no sign of slowing down and Wednesday's coup hasn't brought as much stability as expected. Let's hope that the media can stop turning a blind eye and stop giving assailants the anonymity they want. Let's hope that male protesters stand up against sexual predators and protect the safety of all. The image below shows a human-chain created by Egyptian men to preserve the safety of female protesters. It's beautiful. It's also woeful that it's necessary. It's woefully beautiful.
How do you feel about the prevalence of sexual assault in Egypt? Let me know on Twitter: @feministabulous