Source: France 24 | Sophie Pilgrim
The images, filmed from a distance, show a frenzied mob seemingly fighting over the victim, although at no point can she be seen. Accompanied by a frank commentary detailing the episode, the clip is unsettling to watch despite its lack of nudity or graphic scenes.
Behind the video lies Operation Anti Sexual Harassment, a grassroots association set up in November 2012 to tackle sexual violence against women. Patrolling the streets, handing out fliers and providing physical and psychosocial help to victims, the group is one of several attempting to fight the prolific sexual harassment of women protesters in Egypt.
Long a taboo, sexual violence in Egypt finally became a talked-about subject after an increase in public attacks during the 2011 uprising. The wave of violence against women was poignantly highlighted in December 2011 by shocking footage of a young, veiled but shirtless woman being brutally beaten by police. “Blue bra girl,” as she became known, made violence against women an unavoidable post-revolution discussion.
But as last week’s brutal assaults show, open debate about the subject has failed to stop the attacks from happening. Associations like Operation Anti Sexual Harassment or OpAntiSH, say its due to sexual harassment at public rallies is being used to discourage women from attending.
“What is going on is political. Its main aim is the exclusion of women from a public space,” Engy Ghozlan of OpAntiSH explained in an interview posted on YouTube by AhramOnline. “In these recent assaults, the exact same thing keeps happening in exactly the same way. These attacks are organised."
Ghozlan’s arguments have been echoed by numerous activists and associations and are disputed by few among Egyptian protesters, to such a point that OpAntiSH and similar associations, such as Tahrir Bodyguard, make no attempt whatsoever to bring the assailants to justice. “We don’t punish the attackers or try to arrest them,” Ghozlan said. “It would be too difficult to apprehend them. Our aim is to save the victim.”
According to OpAntiSH, dozens of women were assaulted in and around Tahrir Square last week. The group says it saw 19 victims on January 25 alone. But with little recognition from the authorities, the group’s claims are often dismissed as false. One of the ways activists try to overcome this is by publishing detailed accounts of sexual assault online.
One of those victims, who says she was attacked last November 2012 but decided to speak out only months later, described her feeling of utter helplessness and fear of being crushed to death as a group of men separated her from her friend and inflicted a lengthy ordeal on her. But despite her trauma, the victim also stressed that women must not be put off exercising their right to attend political rallies, and urged girls “not to be frightened, not to hide in [their] homes”.
Her call is one of many, often anonymous, online voices advocating resistance in the face of what they deem to be the violent suppression of women. Popular blogger and revolutionary Zeinobia urged women to repeat the mantra “I will not give up, this is my square, this is my country” in a blog post published on Saturday. But she also admitted to feeling unsafe alone in Tahrir Square after 4 pm. “The police do not care or want to help at all. I have no doubt that policemen do not respect either women or men protesters,” she wrote, perhaps in reference to the brutal beating of a male protester by police the same day.
Like many anti-government activists, Zeinobia blames Islamist supporters of the ruling Muslim Brotherhood party for the violence. Hosni Mubarak was accused of using the same tactic to discredit his own critics when they took to the streets in 2011. Aware of these accusations, the current government has been quick to rule out the comparison with its predecessor. Last Saturday, Prime Minister Hisham Kandil placed the blame for the violence firmly on the protesters camped out in the square. “Protesters do not torch, attack hotels, rape women, loot shops,” he said. “These are not revolutionaries.”
I am a volunteer in Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment/Assault. I joined during the days of the collective rapes that happened in November 2012 during the Mohamed Mahmoud memorial. I thought of myself as someone who was very aware and understood the details of organized group rape that happens in Tahrir, and that I was at least mentally prepared--that I needed to act calmly and wisely--but the truth was that the situation was completely beyond my abilities.
On January 25th 2013, I arrived at the ‘Operations Room’ where we prepare first aid bags and take calls. We are divided into different groups, each group responsible for something specific, from the ‘Midan’ group that distributes fliers and asks people if they see any cases of group harassment to call these numbers, to the ‘Rescue’ group that enters the crowd and tries to rescue the girl, to the ‘Safety’ group that tries to provide security and first aid for the girl. But these details aren’t important.
The rescue group was supposed to begin working at 7pm, but while preparing the rescue bags we received calls asking for us to intervene quickly in a case at the Mogamma in Tahrir. Two other volunteers (a guy and a girl) and I left, running with the rescue bags, which contain clothes (because the first thing these scum do is to cut the girl’s clothes) and first aid. We arrived at the Mogamma in Tahrir and didn’t see anything. We got news again that we should go to Hardee’s because there was a case of harassment happening right then. We ran and arrived at a large group, and screaming at the street corner, and alarming numbers squeezed onto the sidewalk. I was sure the girl was in between these crowds but I didn’t see her. The girl I was with and I tried to reach her, but I was surprised when men started yelling and telling us “You’ll get beaten up, you won’t get out of here, get out!” Before I could understand their warnings a group of men cornered us. To our backs was a foul cart, and I didn’t understand how suddenly there were not less than five pairs of hands grabbing my chest and cramming their hands into the fly of my pants, and tens of men shoving each other in order to get to us. I still imagined that my response and screams of “Stop, you animal!” would make some kind of difference. I kept screaming “Stop, you animals!” like an idiot, even though I knew that screaming wouldn’t do anything. The idea that a scandal will make people gather and help--an idea I was used to on the street in an everyday sense--was useless here. I was hitting and pushing and screaming, but the truth of the matter was that the harassers weren’t afraid of a scandal because they were so many, and everyone saw everyone harassing. Either someone joined or he wasn’t able to do anything.
My friend and I were squashed between the people and the foul cart (she was carrying the bag on her back and I was holding tightly on to the straps of the bag). She held onto me by my shoulders tightly and said calmly and reassuringly (unfortunately, this experience had happened to her before and her understanding of the situation was far calmer and better than mine) “We are being attacked right now and the most important thing is that we stay together, no matter what happens.” Nothing else mattered to her other than reassuring me, and she kept saying “We’re going to get out of this, we’re going to get out of this, don’t be scared, we’re together.” She kept repeating “We’re together, don’t separate us,” again and again. I held onto her tightly and felt all the hands groping every part of my body. After that I didn’t feel anything other than that they were pushing me. In the midst of the terrible numbers and the horrible shoving, we moved away from the foul cart (that had been protecting our backs). Suddenly we were in the middle of the street, and the five pairs of hands became many more. They were grabbing me everywhere on my body and trying to put their fingers in my behind over my pants and in the fly of my pants with the utmost violence and savagery.
I felt something pointed and became really afraid. I realized one of them had something pointy and small, and was trying to insert it or use it to cut my pants. I was screaming and really choking and crying, I couldn’t do anything. I kept screaming hysterically, I kept screaming “Shame on you! Shame on you!” for a very long time, I don’t know why. I couldn’t see my friend at all. They were pulling the kefayya around my neck and choking me and dragging me by it (the worst thing is for someone to be wearing a kefayya in the clashes) and I was choking, I couldn’t breathe.... I forgot all of the advice that I had learned in our group. I forgot that I needed to stay calm and that my screaming attracted them even more. The more I screamed the more savagely they attacked me. Right in front of me, I saw someone (I remember the way he looked: less than twenty years old and short and with the utmost savagery) cutting my sweater and cutting my bra and stripping it off of me. He kept grabbing my breasts and at the same time people were violating my body everywhere. I was so disgusted and felt sick. I felt like I was going to pass out. I was really scared I was going to fall to the ground. The shoving and the hands multiplied, and suddenly I stopped screaming, I couldn’t breathe and I got really dizzy, and I was afraid I was going to fall down and die, I really felt that death wasn’t far at all.
The pushing and the crowding was unbelievable, and I kept saying to the boy that was grabbing my breasts that I was dying and I kept trying to convince him that I couldn’t breathe and I was going to die. In the midst of all that shoving my sweater had reached my neck and my chest was completely naked. Everyone around me was grabbing my breasts and one of them was trying to undo my belt and pull my pants off my body, so there would be a place for someone else to stick his hand. He stuck his hands in my pants and kept scratching me with his fingers, grabbing me really hard and hugging me and screaming “Leave her alone you shitheads, leave her alone!” While he was screaming he was sticking all his fingers inside my pants, and so many of them were grabbing my breasts and so many people were pushing. Belts were hitting everyone everywhere. I felt like I was going to throw up and I was really dizzy. I don’t know how much time passed and how people shoved us until we arrived at a corner in the wall next to Pizza Hut. We protected our backs with the wall, and a man kept hitting anyone around us and saying “Shame on you, she’s about to die” and kept screaming “She’s going to die because of you.” Suddenly flames ignited from a hairspray can in front of me and the crowd dispersed, like insects. There were just two harassers left, stuck to us, continuing the assault. I saw my friend next to me again. The filthiest creature was the one who was grabbing me everywhere on my body, screaming as if he were defending me, while in reality it was his hands inside my pants. He was screaming “Leave her alone, leave her alone!” (All my attention was focused on him not undoing my belt) and at the same time there were two men standing next to me completely calmly, grabbing my behind. They ignited more hairspray and suddenly there was a corridor for us to run into Pizza Hut. People pushed us inside and the rest of the harassers tried to enter and attack people who were standing outside, they were screaming and banging on the door. They closed the outer metal door of the shop completely and gave me a sweater. My friend’s head was covered in blood.
I swear that what happened to me is just a quarter of what has happened to many other girls.
The attempt to terrorize us will not succeed, our anger and determination have doubled. I am truly sorry for all the girls who have experienced anything like this, I promise we will not be silent.