Solidarity with our Egyptian Sisters!
‘Ok so you want to talk about women’s human rights defenders, ok great they get harassed and then what else can you say about them?’
The question hung as my blood boiled. There he was, the white male in all his glory, dismissing with a flick of his hand one of the most pressing issue of our day. When I say ‘the most pressing issue of our day’ it’s to shield me with bland words from the abominable ignominy that are sexual harassment and gender based violence.
A week later, the rapes and harassment in Tahrir happened. Not that they were something new, but they seemed like the cruel response of the indifference of the privileged majority when it comes to protecting women’s rights and bodies.
The notion of women’s bodies as battlefields is nothing new: the tactic of rape as a weapon of war has sadly been used in many conflicts, prompting ad hoc international criminal tribunals to consider it as a war crime in some instances (cf Akayesu case) and the International Criminal Court to classify it as a war crime and, when happening on a large scale, as a crime against humanity.
In an innovative move that has sprung great hopes in terms of properly addressing gender based violence in times of conflict but that has unfortunately not been consistently followed by practical implementation (save the Bemba trial that is clearly focusing on sex crimes [i]) the Rome Statute was the first international humanitarian law treaty to explicitly refer to rape and other gender crimes (Rape, sexual slavery, enforced prostitution, forced pregnancy, enforced sterilization, or any other form of sexual violence of comparable gravity) as crimes under international law in its articles 7 and 8. While the fourth Geneva Convention mentioned rape in its Article 27(2) “[w ] omen shall be especially protected against any attack on their honour, in particular against rape, enforced prostitution, or any form of indecent assault”, the disposition leaves sexual violence out of the realm of ‘grave breaches’ to the Convention and automatically links the issue of rape with the issue of honour[ii]. That is, the same notion that pushes some men to sexually abuse, harass and rape women.
Human rights law also tackles the issue of violence against women. The 1993 UN declaration on the elimination of Violence Against Women defines VAW at its article 1 as[iii]:
For the purposes of this Declaration, the term “violence against women” means any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life.
The preamble of the declaration also insists that the principles contained in the declaration are enshrined in international instruments such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.
All this to show that even if states disregard the issue of violence against women and gender based sexual violence, they’re doing so in contravention with international standards. Not that they care, it’s just us who are looking for tools to hold them accountable and to force them to shake themselves away from this culture of impunity they so complacently fall in when it comes to women’s rights.
The latest cases of mob-rapes in Egypt are just about the cruelest reminder that women are once again paying the highest price for the absence of justice and rule of law.
Testimonies collected by Egyptian organizations and activists such as Nazra for Feminist Studies, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights and the Operation Anti Sexual Harassment (OPAntiSH, a collective gathering 11 Egyptian civil society organizations and about 100 volunteers or so) and international NGOs such as Amnesty International state that extreme violence and brutality have been used against women demonstrators. Videos show mobs brutally raping and abusing women, with different roles asserted to different persons from the mob, some of them beating the women up, others keeping other demonstrators and rescuers at bay (rescuers who have been attacked as well) using blades and sticks and others creating confusing by pretending they were protecting women.
Reports from field activists indicate that most mob-rapes have happened on the edges of Tahrir Square, where it is easier for perpetrators to push victims into smaller, less frequented streets. Another method has also been to pretend that some members of the mob were protecting women, confusing the crowd and therefore allowing perpetrators to isolate further the victim. Perpetrators have been using different techniques to separate women from the crowd and rape and abuse them, including the use of weapons such as knifes and blades, encircling the victim within a ring and pushing and shoving her outside of the demonstration or luring her away from other people.
Women survivors talk about how they got beaten up, their clothes ripped apart, unknown hands violating their bodies, dispossessing them of their bodies.
The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights has collected testimonies from women survivors, one of them of a woman who has been stabbed in her vagina and another one from a woman who has been raped by a mob, leaving her into a coma. Both women are reported to be fighting for their life.
The coordinated, organized nature of the attacks, coupled with the total impunity perpetrators have enjoyed so far make activists inclined to think that these were well thought-through attacks designed to prevent women from actively participating in Egypt public life and allowing them to help shape their country’s future. It is a strategy to keep women at home, the shame and scare them into keeping to the roles society allows them, namely to be mothers and wives and meek and obedient, something that is reflected in the new Egyptian constitution that only highlights women’s roles within the family while leaving out productive and communal roles and that doesn’t enshrine gender equality in itself.
These attacks would not have been successful had they not relied on a structural patriarchal context that allows for sexual harassment and sexual violence to happen. This isn’t Islam’s fault, this isn’t something enshrined within Egyptian culture. Those awful acts are the result of patriarchy coupled with political strategies to weaken the opposition.
The feelings of hollowness and anger, no sorry, of absolute, undiluted rage I feel after reading these testimonies is nothing compared to what Egyptian women have been and are still going through. On the 12th of February, answer the call to show solidarity with our Egyptian sisters and demonstrate against sexual violence in front of the nearest Egyptian Embassy.
“I am really angry, I want to claim my rights, I will not be afraid and I will continue participating in protests and go down to the streets… Some bad things that happen to you break you, while other things make you stronger… I feel like this will make me stronger.”
Dalia Abdel Wahab to Amnesty International 
‘I did not comprehend what is happening… who are those people? All that I knew was that there were hundreds of hands stripping me of my clothes and brutally violating my body. There is no way out, for everyone is saying that they are protecting and saving me, but all I felt from the circles close to me, sticking to my body, was the finger-rape of my body, from the front and back; someone was even trying to kiss me… I was completely naked, pushed by the mass surrounding me to an alley close to Hardee’s restaurant… I am in the middle of this tightly knit circle. Every time I tried to scream, to defend myself, to call on a savior, they increased their violence and rape. I fell again in the sewer water in front of Hardee’s and I realized, then, that falling amounts to death. I decided to keep my calm, seeing that screaming is followed by more violence. I tried to remain standing, holding onto their hands which are violating me, and their arms. In the alleyway near Hardee’s, I fell again in the same sewer, naked. I was able to escape death by stampede and found a building, where the doorman was standing behind the door, refusing to open it. I was stuck in the building’s entrance for a log time, bodies scrambling around me, their hands still violating me. I even saw some standing on top of elevated surfaces to be able to watch freely, feeding his sexual frustrations by watching. I felt that I spent a long time in that corner, until someone threw me a pullover, which was impossible to put on, as bodies stuck to me, preventing me from wearing it. I succeeded, in a moment, to put the pullover on, the same moment I heard a group of young men to my left agreeing to take me to another place, according to one of them, ‘we will take her and then one by one, guys’.
Testimony of a woman survivor to Nazra for Feminist Studies