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

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 assurrounding 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. Corroboratingthe advice of OpAntiSH, the map shows that multiple entryways leading into Tahrir Square were commonly targeted areas.

Many of the activists have noted the organized, planned nature of some attacks, in addition to cases of spontaneous street harassment. In her 2012 documentary “Sex, Mobs and Revolution,” filmmaker Ramita Navai revealed that the Mubarak regime had paid groups of men to harass and attack women, and that some groups continue to be paid by unidentified sources. Organizers in OpAntiSH and Banat Misr have alleged that armed harassers are now being organized and paid off by the Muslim Brotherhood, other Islamist political parties, and remnants of the old regime.

“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,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director of HRW, which has worked closely with OpAntiSH. HRW noted that since November 2011, police officers have steered clear of Tahrir Square during larger protests, which has left female protesters vulnerable to attack.

One survivor said that these attacks were having their intended effects. “They’re starting to segregate women from the revolution,” she said told filmmaker Ramita Navai.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon expressed his concern about the reports on Tuesday, saying, “While addressing all this current crisis in a peaceful manner, [Egyptians] should pay more attention to the female demonstrators since we have seen many sexual assault cases over the course of the demonstrations.” President Obama also expressed his “deep concern” about violenece, and particularly sexual assault against women, in a phone call with Morsi on Tuesday.

Despite the constant threat of assault, many female activists have remained undeterred from participating in the demonstrations, which will likely continue now that Morsi is out of office. “The entire revolution is a dangerous experience,” Dalia Abdel Hameed, a member of OpAntiSH, told Al-Monitor. “You can’t stop doing something just because it’s dangerous.”

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