Conflict & Justice

How Egyptian Women Fight Sexual Harassment

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Activist Nihal Saad Zaghloul (Photo: Noel King)

In the run-up to the final round of Egypt's presidential election, a series of violent attacks against women in Cairo's Tahrir Square has left many people angry and unsettled. Sexual harassment is not uncommon in parts of Cairo and perpetrators are rarely prosecuted. But the recent assaults in Tahrir were notable because of the level of the violence and because they involved dozens or even hundreds of men.

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There was a protest march recently in Tahrir Square, but 26-year-old activist Nihal Saad Zaghloul stayed home. Zaghloul said she doesn't feel safe in Tahrir anymore after she and two female friends were sexually assaulted by a mob of men at another demonstration.

"It was getting so crowded and we wanted to get out," she said. "And suddenly, some men just started to grab us and, like, pull us away from each other. It was groping and, like, hands all over you and it wasn't really nice at all. It was really aggressive. Somemen were trying to help us out but at some point you did not know who was helping and who was not."

Cairo is never an easy city for women. Catcalling, groping and unwanted sexual advances are common. Some women find the harassment irritating; others find it frightening. Most agree that it is almost impossible to avoid. But Zaghloul said what happened to her and her friends in Tahrir Square differed from day-to-day sexual harassment.

"They didn't get the meaning of 'no' and 'leave us alone,'. "They were just going on and on and on and on. It was as if they were animals on drugs or something. It wasn't normal. You know? It wasn't. It wasn't as if they were normal people. They were enjoying it was like sadistic; they were enjoying hurting us," Zaghloul said.

Zaghloul didn't go to the police because she knew it's unlikely that anyone would be punished.

"The fact that many women today don't automatically go to the police is a reflection of the fact that they know that their complaint won't be taken seriously and won't progress, so they think it's a waste of time," said Heba Morayaf, an Egypt analyst with Human Rights Watch.

"In some cases, obviously, the police is also involved in the harassment. But the truth of the matter is that even in the more serious incidents, even in the rare cases when women do insist on filing a complaint, it never goes anywhere," Morayef said.

Police have more or less ceded control in Tahrir Square to Civilian watchdog groups. After 22-year-old engineering student Abd el Fattah Mahmoud heard about Zaghloul's assault from a blog post she wrote about the incident, he formed a group of his own. For Abd el Fattah and many young men and women who took part in the revolution, Tahrir is a sacred space.

"For this to happen, that means the revolution is dying in eyes of the people and the hearts of the youth that started it," Mahmoud said. "This is very significant. It's more significant than the marches and the sit-ins. This is very significant. We can't let this happen here."

Abd el Fattah Mahmoud and other young revolutionaries say they believe that the assaults on women are a deliberate attempt to scare them away from the square and to tarnish Tahrir's image.

But they can't pinpoint who might be behind the attacks, and they have no proof that the attacks are planned. A few days after Nihal was assaulted, she and Abd el Fattah helped organize a rally in Tahrir against sexual harassment. Things got off to a slow start; only a few, mostly non-Egyptian women, turned out. And crowds of curious men quickly surrounded them.

"We're being surrounded by other men and I don't feel comfortable," said one woman.

"It's just because we're foreign women standing around," said another. "This is my problem. I feel so uncomfortable. They're just surrounding us. These aren't men here to protect us. These are men that are probably gonna assault us."

But the women stayed and their numbers grew.Around fifty women held homemade signs and chanted against sexual harassment.

The women were ringed by men wearing neon yellow vests, members of Abd el Fattah Mahmoud's civilian patrol.

Nihal Saad Zaghloul said it felt a bit awkward and strange being back in Tahrir Square, but seeing all of the people supporting the women made her feel better.

The rally was scheduled to last until sundown. At dusk, the group disbanded and most participants headed for home. A few stayed behind in the square. As night fell, they were attacked by a mob of men. The women fled and escaped without serious injuries.

They didn't go to the police, and their attackers were never identified.

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