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“Don’t go there” and “Stay out for your own safety” have been the menacing messages from alarmist male protesters with which many women are welcomed into Tahrir Square, the cradle of the Egyptian revolution.
The reason: rampant cases of sexual harassment, assaults and even rape of women in and around the square.
Seen as a way of deterring women from participating in protests, sexual harassment has become a focus for activist groups, filling the gap of inaction by the state.
“Harassers are not allowed entrance” was the message hung up by some of these groups in the square. But the problem is bigger than banners.
Tahrir, which was the focal point of the uprising that deposed Hosni Mubarak last year and remains a central gathering point for major protests since the 25 January revolution, has been plagued with numerous incidents of sexual harassment and physical assaults against women, including female protesters, journalists and passers-by.
These cases appear to be perpetrated by individuals as spontaneous outbursts of mob violence, and organized harassers working in tandem to assault females in the square.
Dina Farid, founder and coordinator of the Banat Misr initiative, says “there is a concerted effort to scare away people from the square — especially female protesters.” The group has reported about a dozen cases of sexual harassment or assault within just three days.
“We have reported both individual [and] isolated acts of harassment and organized mob harassment,” Farid says, clarifying that mobs of harassers act in groups to encircle and assault females.
Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment Coordinator Aalam Wassef also suggests there is a deliberate attempt to scare women away from the square.
“Harassers are targeting women with the intent of making the square feel threatening and unsafe,” he says, adding that organized harassers also seek to tarnish the image of Tahrir Square.
“Some cases of harassment are spontaneous, like the everyday cases of harassment against women that take place across Egypt’s streets,” Wassef says.
However, many cases of mass harassment are attributed to “mob mentality,” or, in some cases, “mobs that work in coordination to collectively harass women.”
“In previous occupations of Tahrir Square, we’ve noticed that coordinated and organized mobs of harassers often carry weapons with them. They are quite likely paid and armed to do so,” Wassef says.
He comments that organized acts of sexual harassment or assault were utilized against protesters during the rule of ousted President Hosni Mubarak, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and presently under the regime of President Mohamed Morsy.
Reem Labib, another volunteer from Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment, also sees a conspiracy in the widespread harassment in Tahrir.
“Egyptian women are subjected to harassment on a daily basis, yet organized harassers in the square utilize violence to target not only women, but also the revolution. They use both physical and psychological violence against protesters in the square,” Labib says.
In her film “Sex Mobs and Revolution,” filmmaker Ramita Navai reveals that harassers hailing from a low-income Cairo neighborhood were previously paid by men tied to the Mubarak regime to disrupt protests, and that they are still paid to do the same. But they refuse to identify who is paying them now.
Perpetrators’ use of arms is further fueling suspicion about conspiracy, while the victim can be a mother, a veiled or a conservatively dressed woman.
“Some of the [group] harassers apprehended have been found to be carrying knives, while others have been found with drugs and pills,” says Farid.
Mohamed al-Azaly, lawyer and volunteer with Banat Misr, says that “while some have been found carrying drugs, most of the harassers are sober and are well aware of the acts they are committing against women.”
“It doesn’t make a difference whether a woman has her hair uncovered, or is wearing a hijab or even a niqab,” Azaly says. “All these women have been harassed here in the square.”
He says he had helped pull out two women donning the full face veil from a collective assault against them in the square.
“They were a mother and her daughter, both of whom were dressed in conservative Islamic attire, and nonetheless they were attacked,” Azaly says.
“Many of the women harassed have violently had their clothes ripped off in these assaults,” Farid adds.
Over the course of the past week, three volunteer groups have emerged in Tahrir to patrol and protect women and girls from sexual harassment and assault in and around the square. Their work includes both prevention by monitoring and protection by helping out victims and intercepting the attackers.
The first to make its appearance was Banat Misr Khatt Ahmar — literally translated as Egypt’s Girls Are a Red Line — which has been involved in monitoring incidents of harassment around downtown Cairo since the Eid al-Adha holiday in late October.
Banat Misr resumed its operations, this time exclusively in Tahrir, on 29 November. The group has about 30 members, including males and females, all of whom wear white T-shirts with the group’s logo clearly emblazoned on them.
There are clearly more male volunteers in this group than females. The female volunteers are said to be more involved in the counseling and psychological assistance of women subjected to harassment or assaults in the square.
Azaly explains the group’s tactics in weeding out harassers from the square.
“Together, we rush to the scene of the harassment. We form a cordon around the harassers and pull them out. We then take them to our tent, where we have them call their parents, or wives if they are married, to come claim them from the square.”
Azaly adds that if the harassers do not cooperate, they send them to Qasr al-Nil Police Station, and that most of these harassers are “either released the same day, or are held in detention for a day or two.”
“As of yet, no victims have been willing to press charges against their harassers — perhaps from fear of stigmatization, a drawn-out judicial process or other considerations,” Azaly concludes. “We hope that women will be willing to follow through with these legal steps against their harassers. If so, then the harassers may truly be held accountable and brought to justice.”
Farid says they take photos of the perpetrators to identify them in the future, and to keep them away from the square, but says they have not taken down their names or personal ID information.
The Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment group, also known in Arabic as Quwwa Ded al-Taharosh, made its first appearance on 30 November, when protests returned to Tahrir Square after Morsy’s controversial constitutional declaration, through which he claimed additional powers for himself. Mosireen, a revolutionary media collective, and other volunteers established the group.
Consisting of 30-some members, Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment also wear white T-shirts or sweatshirts with a red logo reading “Against Harassment” on the front and “A Square Safe for All” on the back. It uses the same group tactics employed by Banat Misr in weeding out harassers.
Wassef says this group reported about five cases of harassment on its first day alone.
Both Banat Misr and Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment have provided the public with social networking sites and telephone hotlines through which people can report cases of harassment or assault and other related information.
A third volunteer group known as Tahrir Bodyguards could not be reached for comment. It has been reported that this group has built wooden watchtowers from which to monitor incidents of harassment within the square.
Protesters have climbed these watchtowers and protested from above, yet no volunteers could be seen on these towers.
Wassef explains that there should be wariness about the terminology in use, which reflects the depth of the problem. He explains that the word taharosh, or sexual harassment, has replaced the much milder word, mo’aksa — roughly translated as heckling or chiding — to describe “these unwelcomed actions” against women and girls.
In his group’s experience, there are several degrees of sexual harassment, ranging from verbal to touching or groping, stripping and other forms of violent action, as well as rape.
“Rape does not necessarily involve penetration with the harassers’ genitals. Rape can be perpetrated with fingers or other objects,” Wassef explains.
Nonetheless, many activists continue to use the term “sexual harassment” as opposed to “sexual assault,” even when describing cases where women have been physically or sexually attacked.
But other than volunteer-based initiatives to combat sexual assault, more wide-ranging activities are needed to end this plague.
Wassef thinks the state, through its Egyptian Radio and Television Union, could be the most effective in combating sexual harassment.
“If only they’d launch anti-harassment ads, public service announcements, documentaries and awareness-raising programs, then we would have a very effective tool with which to confront harassers,” says Wassef. “Yet the authorities lack the will to do so.”
Banat Misr’s hotlines can be reached at 012-8034-4414 or 010-1687-6333.
Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment’s hotlines can be reached at 011-5789-2357, 012-0239-0087or 010-1605-1145.
This piece was originally published in Egypt Independent's weekly print edition.