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Segregated Revolution? Activists Fight Back Against Egypt's Sexual Assault Problem

Mapping assaults and removing harassers are among the strategies in Tahrir Square.
 
 
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Photo Credit: Mohamed Elsayyed/Shutterstock.com

 
 
 
 

While protest organizers and the recently overturned government have been receiving criticism for ignoring the problem of sexual assault and treating perpetrators with immunity during the latest protests in Egypt, activists on the ground have been fighting back.

As massive demonstrations unfolded in Tahrir Square over the weekend, Egyptians once again confronted systemic sexual assault and harassment, an issue that has been present throughout the revolution and what originally seemed to be the post-revolution period. The Egyptian group Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment/Assault (OpAntiSH) cataloged at least 91 sexual assaults over the past four days, with 46 attacks on June 30 alone at the height of the protests. The volunteer organization  reported that these incidents ranged from “mob sexual harassment and assault” to “raping female protestors using knives and sharp objects.” As has been the case throughout protests in Tahrir Square  in recent years, cases often involve a group of men who circle isolated women and assault them.

Human Rights Watch (HRW)  reported that perpetrators have been receiving impunity for their crimes, with the attention of law enforcement turned elsewhere. In light of the latest slew of assaults, OpAntiSH and HRW have heavily criticized the government for the lack of police presence to protect women in Tahrir Square, and are demanding arrests and prosecution of perpetrators. Recently ousted President Mohamed Morsi’s government had  convened committees and proposed legislative action to combat the problem as attention grew over the past year, but no action has yet been taken. A member of one of those committees and a lawmaker in the Morsi’s government, Adel Afifi, stirred controversy in March when he said, “Sometimes, a girl contributes 100 percent to her own raping when she puts herself in these conditions.”

Where the state was not present, grassroots activists stepped in. OpAntiSH, whose slogan is “A safe square for all,” was  formed in November 2012 by women who had been assaulted and other volunteers among the protesters. The organization runs a hotline for survivors and bystanders to report incidents of sexual assault and seek support or medical assistance, as well as  safehouses near the Square.

Volunteers on the ground sent out mixed-gender teams to  rescue survivors and provide medical, legal, and emotional support. If they arrive soon enough, the teams use tactics such as surrounding the harassers and pulling them out of the square to prevent assaults from occurring. With an active presence on  Twitter and Facebook, OpAntiSH also works to alert women of potentially dangerous areas of the square, and to raise awareness of the problem in general.

Several other grassroots groups have emerged in Tahrir Square to respond to sexual violence, including the  Banat Misr initiative, which also monitors incidents and runs a response hotline, and the  Tahrir Bodyguards, a group composed mainly of men who use similar tactics to remove harassers from the scene as they spot them.

Other activists have been attempting prevention and awareness strategies. One group, called Nazra for Feminist Studies, publishes  testimonies of assaults from survivors in an effort to raise awareness. Another group has built one of the more creative measures to address the sexual assault crisis:  crowdsourcing data onto an interactive online map.

HarassMap was launched in December 2010 to catalog incidents of harassment, assault, and rape. Users can email, tweet, text, or post via Facebook to report incidents, which are registered on  the website’s interactive, filterable map. During the Tahrir Square protests, it has become a key tool to track and prevent rampant assault. Corroborating the advice of OpAntiSH, the map shows that multiple entryways leading into Tahrir Square were commonly targeted areas.

 
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