CAIRO, Egypt — It starts off with a single grope, an unfamiliar hand reaching for a buttock, or maybe a breast.
But before there is time to react, the one hand turns into many, grabbing, tearing, stripping, biting — raping.
This is Cairo’s famed Tahrir Square. Once the epicenter of Egypt’s peaceful uprising, where activists plotted an idealistic future, the immense plaza in downtown Cairo is now also something much darker — a hub for mass sexual assaults against female protesters and journalists.
Violent mobs of sometimes hundreds of men have contributed to an uptick in violations against women in the square in recent months, culminating in the highest-ever number of sexual incidents at a protest on the recent Jan. 25 anniversary of Egypt’s uprising. On that day, at least one of the 19 victims was forced to undergo surgery. Her genitals were sliced with a knife, health officials said.
“We’ve experienced and witnessed a lot of … violence happening all over the square,” said Engy Ghozlan, co-founder of Harassmap, a social initiative that uses a text message system to report sexual harassment in Egypt. “The prevalence of the cases is increasing, the viciousness of the cases is increasing. And it’s a phenomenon that is widespread in Tahrir Square.”
The sexual harassment of women of all walks of life has in recent years proliferated on the streets of Cairo, where men catcall, grope or gesture suggestively to Egyptian and foreign women alike. In one instance that received worldwide attention, a group of men attacked CBS News correspondent Lara Logan on Feb. 11, 2011. Logan later said she thought she was going to die at that moment in Tahrir Square.
According to a 2008 study by the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights (ECWR) — the only report of its kind — 83 percent of Egyptian women and 98 percent of foreign women have experienced sexual harassment in Egypt. Men surveyed in the study told the center the harassment satisfies their sexual desires, or makes them feel more masculine.
Female demonstrators and anti-harassment activists say the recent sexual aggression in Tahrir stands out for its style, organization and brutality, bearing little affiliation with sexual desire. Weapons are used to threaten the woman or tear her clothes. Men use their hands to grope and penetrate the victim. Some members of the crowd act like they are helping — only to violate the woman further.
Because the mobs often work in coordination, striking in similar ways and at similar locations inside the square, activists and other protesters believe the attacks are planned, premeditated assaults aimed at tarnishing the image of the revolution and eradicating women from the public sphere.
Egypt’s women were at the forefront of the uprising two years ago — battling police and security forces — and have been present at the numerous protests that have taken place since.
Women young and old, veiled and unveiled, have all been attacked in the square, according to groups that compile reports of sexual violence. The attackers are using the woman’s body as a political tool, they say.
“These people are not revolutionaries. They are part of the counterrevolution, trying to stop us from succeeding,” 52-year-old Nadia Refaat, a self-described leftist and feminist protester in Tahrir, said of the attackers. “They are trying to scare women. But we will not be afraid.”
The male attackers often form circles around their victims before launching their assaults, almost always at the periphery of the square and after dark, activists and witnesses told GlobalPost. Perpetrators often also attack anyone mobilized to rescue the victim, or chase a woman who has sought refuge from the assault into the shadows of a nearby building. They almost always separate the victim from any male companions.
Volunteers with Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment, a new group formed to battle sexual assault in the square by dispatching rescue teams to the sites of attacks, say their hotline numbers receive a spate of false reports aimed at distracting them from saving actual victims.
On Jan. 25, “we were attacked non-stop for two hours,” said Hussein Al Shafie, one of the initiative’s Tahrir Square volunteers. His rescue team had saved a woman from a mob assault, taking her to safety inside their makeshift headquarters at Tahrir.
“They came to our headquarters in the square to attack us. They lit a fire outside the door so we couldn’t leave,” he said. “They looked drugged, and they were saying: ‘What are those girls doing here? We want the girls.’ The more we organize, the more they organize.”
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The state has long used organized sexual violence against women to quash dissent and disperse protests. As far back as 2005, state security agents began hiring local thugs or unemployed criminals to carry out the attacks. But activists say they have little evidence, other than the synchronized nature of the attacks, to prove they are in fact orchestrated by the state or other criminal elements.
Security forces do not maintain a presence in the square, though they are frequently engaged in street battles with protesters on its fringes. Both army and police have been accused themselves of assaulting or harassing women, particularly those participating in political protests.
In a largely patriarchal society like Egypt, women are systematically discriminated against, fostering an environment where harassment is not only tolerated but is a social habit that crosses class and socio-economic lines, activists say.
Researchers have also blamed unemployment and widespread poverty for male attitudes toward women here.
In the 2008 ECWR study, 52 percent of those surveyed blamed harassment on women for dressing indecently, despite the fact that the majority of the victims are veiled. Other respondents said women should not be out on the streets, or that men should be allowed to harass women if they are unable to marry.
“The objectification of women has been an ongoing issue for the past 30 years,” Al Shafie said. “We have the tendency to blame the subject of the harassment and sympathize with the harasser.”
Even male protesters in the square, seemingly uninvolved in the violence, said they believe female protesters should stop attending protests, or come with ample protection.
“Under the circumstances, maybe less women should come [to the square],” said 42-year-old Sameh Wagdy, a local business-owner. “It is giving the square a bad reputation.”
Olfat Ali, a 42-year-old female activist, was in Tahrir last Friday, Feb. 1, despite the violence that took place the previous week.
“We are here to topple the regime,” Ali said. “We are part of this revolution and no one can change that.”