There is barely a media outlet in Egypt that has not covered sexual violence in the wake of violations and rapes in Tahrir Square. From Salafi satellite channels to privately-owned liberal ONTV, and from the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice newspaper to state-owned Al-Ahram to more progressive independent papers such as Al-Masry Al-Youm and Al-Shorouq, all have reported on the issue.
The question of sexual violence never used to be covered in the media, Naila Hamdy says. Now, many are speaking about it.
“But I am not sure how positive it is,” says Hamdy, assistant professor of journalism and mass communication at the American University in Cairo.
Indeed, in its first press release, Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment/Assault, or OpAntiSH, singled out the media for particular censure on this issue.
The group, a network of initiatives and male and female activists working to end group sexual assaults against women in the Tahrir Square area, condemned the “unprofessional way in which some of the media has dealt with the attacks,” highlighting violations by journalists, such as publishing without consent the personal details of women who had been attacked.
Farah Shash, psychologist at Al-Nadeem Center for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence, describes a case in which several outlets published the story of a woman who had been raped with a weapon. These journalists had spoken to the woman’s father — one of them, Shash was told, posed as a doctor — and since then, neither she nor any other therapist at the center have been able to reach the woman.
This, Shash says, is a particularly stark example of how damaging media coverage can be.
Salma Tarzi, an activist and founding member of OpAntiSH, describes much of the coverage as “sensationalist and written in a tabloid style, more about getting a scoop and selling papers than anything else.”
“There is too much victim-blaming,” Hamdy adds. “The reader is left with the impression — whether it is explicitly stated or not — that it is somehow the women’s fault, and that they do not belong there.”
Shash says this is in line with broader societal attitudes in which a woman is held responsible and shamed, even if it is known that she was violently attacked.
An opinion piece in Al-Shorouk, a privately owned newspaper, criticized both public figures and the media for using the issue for political gain and scoring points against opponents.
“The media simply does not have a grip on how profound the problem is. They are looking to blame someone, whether the [Muslim] Brotherhood, feloul or thugs,” Abdallah Schleifer, professor of journalism and mass communication at AUC, says. “They stay on the surface, with easy explanations.
“There are complex socioeconomic reasons behind the explosion of harassment and aggression towards women that the media is not grappling with,” he continues.
For Muzn Hassan, director of Nazra for Feminist Studies, this reflects a “poverty of thinking on women’s issues generally.”
She describes being interviewed on a television program and being asked more than once who was responsible.
“I know they wanted me to say the Brotherhood,” she says, “but I am not going to give them the easy answers they are looking for.
But the current level of media discussion is itself an improvement, she says. As the rapes and violations in Tahrir Square started to come to light, a number of media outlets had not addressed the issue at all, both Tarzi and Hassan say.
They agree that in the end they were compelled to, and that part of this was as a result of pressure from groups such as OpAntiSH and Nazra.
In the past weeks, some women have spoken about their experiences on television channels such as privately owned Al-Nahar and ONtv.
“This is extremely significant,” Hamdy says. “It helps take away some of the stigma.”
Hamdy points to the case of Samira Ibrahim, who chose to speak out publicly about what she was subjected to at the Egyptian Museum in March 2011. While what happened has been widely referred to as “virginity tests,” human rights organizations, including Amnesty International say that what occurred was rape.
“This case, in which Ibrahim was in many outlets held up as a hero, was significant in terms of changing media treatment of the issue,” Hamdy says.
Even before the 25 January revolution, over the past decade, there has been gradual change, Hassan says, with the issue of harassment and sexual violence being discussed more and more.
Rather than criticize the limitations of media coverage, groups such as Nazra have been seeking to make constructive interventions in this regard. They have held discussions for journalists, offering them guidance.
One concern is the issue of terminology. While the term “harassment” is widely used to cover a range of acts as severe as rape, Nazra is at pains to insist that where sexual violations or rape occurs, they must be described as such.
“This is a challenge,” Hassan explains, “as there are still many who believe that the use of fingers or even weapons does not constitute rape.”
Another terminological question is how to describe the women themselves. Where they are not blamed for what has happened to them, they are too often described as victims, Tarzi and Hassan say.
Where women do want to speak publicly, Nazra and Opantish may facilitate this and provide support, but they do not suggest it to women, nor do they give out their details.
“Even to ask a woman if she wants to speak to media can be a form of pressure,” explains Eba’a El-Tamami of HarassMap, one of the participating organizations in OpAntiSH.
There are concerns, Tarzi explains, that the media buzz may be just that — buzz — and that the issue then disappears.
“The idea,” Hassan explains, “is to pry open this limited opening, so that it is spoken about in such a way that it stays on the agenda.”
Activists may be more likely to speak out, she says, because they have a community of support by virtue of their activism. But the notion that activists are targeted for attack is particularly dangerous, not only because it separates the issue from the violence that many women and girls confront.
“But also it would undo one of the key achievements of the revolution — rather than change simply being about activists, the revolution was about ordinary people making change,” she says.
Nelly Ali, who works with women and girls who live on the street, says she was “amazed to find the recent events in Tahrir Square described as ‘shocking’ or ‘surprising’ in the media. All you need to do is hear any street girl speak of her life on the street to understand the violence they are subjected to every day,” Ali says.
This piece was originally published in Egypt Independent's weekly print edition