Events in Egypt are escalating so quickly that I’ve written about five different drafts of this blog post.
Q) As transformations in the country’s turbulent political sphere take centre stage in our global media, which issue has, yet again, been sidelined?
A) The most sickening, horrific abuse of human rights in Egypt: the use of sexual violence against women in Tahrir.
Morsi has been overthrown, and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has stepped in to help provide “transitional government”, promising new elections on an as yet unspecified future date. The last time SCAF stepped in after Mubarak’s deposition in 2011, its apparent persistent attempts to cling onto power, along with its defence of horrific violence used against protestors during the revolution, provoked fear and cynicism from the Egyptian people until Morsi was finally handed the baton in June 2012. Morsi’s presidency brought disappointment, disillusionment, and immense frustration with suspected power-grabbing measures and an all-round failure to deliver on the promises of the revolution. With SCAF now holding the reigns once again, I fear that a safe and secure Egypt remains a hazy, distant prospect.
Where are the women of Egypt in all of this? She lies on the ground in Tahrir Square, covered in bruises. She shields her naked body from the clutches of mobs of men. She shivers, she bleeds. She staggers away with the support of brave men and women who fight back against the attackers. Unlike me, she lives not only with the memories, but with the knowledge that this has been done to her in the city she calls home, in the country she loves. This has been done to her because she went to Tahrir and protested for her human rights – utmost among them, the right to walk freely in her city without being raped or sexually harassed.
In the evening of Sunday 30th June, Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment/Assault reported 46 cases of sexual assault on female protesters. In the four days of protest that followed, a total of at least 91 women were raped. One widely reported case is the rape of a 22-year-old Dutch girl by five men. Having undergone surgery for “severe” injuries sustained in the attack, she has, thankfully, returned home.
Unsurprisingly, her story hits a nerve. She was attacked almost exactly one year after I was, in the same place. I was making a student documentary; she was interning with an Egyptian news agency. We’re both 22. But her experience is more horrific than I can imagine, more damaging in so many ways than my own experience. It pains me to know that she’s just been through that. I’m trying to get in touch with her to give her the opportunity to contact me if she ever wants to.
More painful is the knowledge that while her story, like my story, has been told by news agencies around the world, scores of Egyptian women suffering these attacks see no reporters telling their stories.
This is not a new phenomenon; Egyptian women have endured decades of systematic sexual violence. A UN Report published in May this year stated that 99.3% of Egyptian women have experienced some form of sexual violence. As regimes in Egypt have changed, sexual violence as a form of torture has not. Egypt endured the targeted tactics of Mubarak-era, government-paid “thugs” on women in public spaces. Egypt watched as women participating in the 2011 revolution, like Mona Eltahawy, were stripped and beaten in the streets, then detained and sexually abused. Egypt has been, and continues to be, riddled with men who verbally and physically harass women walking down the street – whether through catcalls, groping, or even gang rape. In 2012, the Ministry of the Interior reported 9,468 cases of harassment, 329 sexual assaults, and 112 cases of rape. The afore-mentioned UN Report found only 19% of women report attacks to the police. Nineteen percent - how many more thousands of cases are missing from the Ministry’s statistics?
And, finally, Egypt is now witnessing more sexual attacks on female protesters than ever before; the UN Report also notes that nearly 50% of women reported increased levels of harassment since the revolution.
One key question in all of this: why? Where does Egypt’s sexual harassment endemic really stem from? Many arguments circle the internet. Some blame Islam, some vaguely blame “Middle Eastern culture”. Click here to read a sharp and insightful critique of oversimplified interpretations of sexual violence in the Middle East.
The roots of Egypt’s sexual harassment endemic stretch deep into the fabric of Egyptian politics, history, and society, and are so tangled that it is difficult to find an easy solution. It stems from behaviours learned from fathers and brothers; historic abuses against women committed by members of authority – those figures children are taught to trust and respect; and from poor education that teaches impressionable young boys to grow into misogynistic young men. I have immense respect for men of Egypt who resist these pervasive cultural influences, and are instead supporting Egyptian women in their fight. All of this only scratches the surface of the roots and reasons for sexual harassment in Egypt.
Surely the key to ending an endless cycle of “like father like son” behaviour towards women is: EDUCATION. How can we educate in the modern world? We’re no longer confined by educational institutions or family influences; thanks to the internet, social media, and mobile technologies, we can learn, share, educate, and support each other on a global scale. This is exactly what groups like Sexual Harassment Action Group, Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment/Assault, Harassmap, the Whistlestop campaign, and so many more, are doing. Men and women are taking grassroots action to inspire people in Egypt and around the world to change life for women in Egypt. From protest marches to male metro patrols, these brave volunteers are often risking their safety to stand up for their sisters.
On a separate note, I am still going to make my documentary. The producer I have been working with is in Cairo now, filming, and I fear for her safety daily. She has taken this documentary down a slightly different route than I envisaged, and as a result, I have decided to push on and create my own, separate, documentary. But one thing I’ve come to appreciate is how much time this is likely to take.
In the past year, I’ve become far more experienced working in factual television, and it’s made me realise how inexperienced I was before and how much I still have to learn. I was a student last year, not a fully-fledged journalist. In order to do justice to this subject, and make a real impact, I need to make a quality documentary. Quality demands expertise, and funding. Securing funding and getting the documentary commissioned will require a high level of skill and a killer pitch, which will take time to develop. And, crucially, I can only return to Egypt to make this documentary with far greater security measures in place, and a stronger team so I am not going it alone.
So I am now committed to this project on a longer-term basis. That may sound like a cop-out, but it is not; my attitude is simply that if I’m going to do this, I must get it right.
I, along with so many others, feel global news agencies are failing to provide sufficient coverage on women of Egypt. So the responsibility to voice these women’s stories has fallen to volunteers running charitable groups. Please support these groups – links provided above – and search for more. And stay tuned as I develop the documentary, in which my aim is to actually help change the situation, not just to comment on it.
We live in a world where billions of women are subjugated through rape and sexual abuse. Women of Egypt cannot enjoy the simple right to walk down the streets and board public transport without facing harassment. Women of Egypt cannot protest without fearing for their lives. How can we claim to be making progress in this world when these most basic of human rights are continually violated?
This battle will be won by persistence and determination over time. The support of men of Egypt is critical. Backward, misogynistic attitudes must be undermined, the roots of sexual harassment and sexual violence ripped from the ground. Men and women of Egypt are already fighting bravely on the frontline; let us form their cavalry.