Almost 100 Percent Of Egyptian Women Have Been Sexually Harassed. Can This Group Protect Them?
Earlier this month, U.N. Women released a study which found that 99.3% of Egyptian women have been sexually harassed, and 48.9% of victims believe sexual harassment has increased after the January 2011 revolution. The study confirms that harassment and assault occur regardless of the woman’s appearance, dress and conduct.
"What is different now [post-revolution], and why this has been brought to public and international attention, is that we're witnessing a number of very violent assaults and rape," Diana Eltahawy, a researcher at Amnesty International Egypt, told Al Arabiya English.
Soraya Bahgat, a human resources manager, joined the protests in 2011 but feared for the safety of herself and other women.
"It's a circle of hell," she told the Atlantic. "It starts with just a few people and turns into a full mob."
Bahgat soon founded Tahrir Bodyguard, a group of now 200 men and women who patrol protests in neon vests and look out for those in need of protection. Tahrir Bodyguard uses Twitter to mobilize its members to rescue women in the crowds. The group has also begun offering self-defense courses.
Numerous other activist groups and organizations have formed over the last two years, including I Saw Harassment, Op Anti Sexual Harassment, Fouada Watch, Kama Tadeen Todan and HarassMap. Palestinian filmmaker Samaher el Kady's documentary about the Egyptian women's rights movement and widespread sexual assault recently won a sound mix award at the Ismailia Film Festival.
"It's time to talk about this subject and end it," el Kady said. "I want to leave the house to go to pick up my son from the nursery without feeling worried or afraid."
Today, protest areas remain unsafe for female activists, who also regularly face detainment without warrants. Authoritative figures and police forces have been, in many cases, unhelpful. Muslim Brotherhood officials have even argued that assaults are to be expected in non-gender-segregated protests.
"Sometimes, a girl contributes 100 percent to her own raping when she puts herself in these conditions," Adel Abdel Maqsoud Afifi, a police general, told the New York Times.
Many believe sexual assault has increased in the aftermath of the revolution because of the withdrawal of security forces since President Hosni Mubarak left office. At least 18 sexual assaults on the second anniversary of the revolution drew the attention of President Mohamed Morsi’s administration. Six of those 18 women were hospitalized, one stabbed in her genitals and another needing a hysterectomy.
Pakinam el-Sharkawy, Morsi's political adviser, has condemned comments by lawmakers that blame the victims of sexual assault. She said the security and police withdrawal has allowed more sexual harassment to take place.
"The protesters insist on keeping security out of the [Tahrir] square, even to regulate traffic," el-Sharkawy said.
In March, Morsi announced a new initiative to support and expand women's rights, which was subsequently denounced by some activists for not providing any actual mechanisms to better the lives of women. In May, the National Council for Women and the Ministry of Interior decided to establish a group to fight violence against women.
Nevertheless, Tahrir Bodyguard and other groups continue to monitor the streets, especially in light of the recent U.N. report.
"Egyptian women are empowered," Bahgat, who is now working on larger gender equality projects, said. "Right now, it's a difficult transition period, but they have what it takes."