91 Women Were Sexually Assaulted in Tahrir Square Before Morsi Could Be Ousted
As renewed mass protests threw Cairo into further levels of chaos and violence, that ended with the ousting of President Mohamed Morsi, women have faced correspondingly increased rates of sexual assault and rape. Human Rights Watch reports that 91 women have been sexually assaulted or raped in Tahrir Square in the four days since June 30. In one instance, a woman had to undergo surgery after being raped "with fingers and a sharp object," while a Dutch journalist was raped by five men. On July 1, the Egyptian activist group Op Anti-Sexual Harassment/Assault tweeted, "among the reported cases tonight are grandmothers; mothers with their children; 7-year-olds. Common denominator: all female." Clearly, no woman of any age or background is safe under such conditions.
Egypt already has well-documented issues with rampant sexual assault and harassment, but the situation tends to worsen when protests erupt in Tahrir Square —as the police withdraws from the area to avoid confrontation with protesters.
Sexual violence and harassment has proliferated during times of heightened chaos brought on by protests, but also during times when the government has had more control. Government officials both before and after the revolution have done little to combat Egypt's sexual assault epidemic. Some choose to ignore the problem, while others actively perpetuate it. For instance, a legislator named General Adel Afifi said, "women contribute 100 percent in their rape because they put themselves in such circumstances" in 2012, reinforcing the common approach of blaming the victims rather than the attackers. Though the Interior Ministry established a subdivision of their human rights division focused on sexual violence in May, lawmakers have done little else to protect women in Egypt.
Several vigilante groups have formed in response to the police and government's utter inability to address sexual assault. Volunteer groups like Tahrir Bodyguard patrolled Tahrir Square dressed in yellow looking to prevent sexual assault and stop attacks already in progress. While their cause is noble, these groups can only prevent a limited amount of violence. Such volunteers are often outnumbered by the mobs of aggressors, who begin to attack the volunteers trying to rescue assault victims. Furthermore, these sorts of vigilante groups offer a temporary solution to a problem that is deeply embedded in Egyptian society and government.
Other groups like HarassMap aim to combat the issue by bypassing the ineffectual government and collecting reports of sexual assault via text message to display on an online map. Victims typically have not reported assault because they believe the flawed legal system will fail to bring their attackers justice; many others have also been intimidated into silence. HarassMap and similar groups utilize social media and text messaging to give women a different way to report assaults. With these reports, HarassMap seeks to show the horrendous prevalence of sexual violence in Egypt and in turn to encourage communities to act against it.
While civil groups may chip away at Egypt's sexual violence problem, Heba Morayef, Egypt Director for the Human Rights Watch, argues that ultimately the problem can only be solved through vigorous government involvement. The government must strengthen the police and criminal justice system to persecute attackers; perhaps more importantly, though, Morayef argues that the government must create a national strategy involving the media, religious institutions, and educational institutions to fundamentally change the country’s approach to sexual assault and harassment.
The interim government appointed on July 3, and the subsequently elected government (if there is one), will be utterly consumed in the struggle to consolidate power over the country, and will not have the physical means nor the will to protect Cairo's women from further attacks. Though the Morsi government did not do nearly enough to reduce sexual assault, a further weakened state apparatus and government will not be capable of doing a better job, at least for a while.
No matter which political faction wins the struggle for Egypt, the women of Cairo are bound to lose.