LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Attacks on female demonstrators in Cairo’s infamous Tahrir Square in recent months have forced the issue of sexual assault back on the agenda in Egypt, with victims and rights groups accusing the authorities of inaction.
Since the start of the year, many cases of rape and sexual assault have hit the headlines, sparking a global public outcry. They include at least 19 women who were attacked on the second anniversary of the revolution on Jan. 25.
Hania Moheeb, a 42-year-old journalist, was attacked during demonstrations in Tahrir Square in January. The pattern of aggression used by the assailants appears to be a recurrent one.
“They closed in around me very quickly and they started stripping me, putting their hands all over my body, violating every inch of my body,” Moheeb told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “This went on for almost 35 or 40 minutes.”
She said there were so many people all around her that she couldn’t see anything, she couldn’t even see her assailants. Even as she was being loaded onto an ambulance people were still touching her.
At the hospital, she said that medical staff and the police tried to pressure her not to file a report.
“They are doing nothing,” Moheb said about the government’s response to sexual assault cases.
“The absence of law enforcement is a large part of the cause for women’s negative perceptions of safety as well as for their lack of enthusiasm to report assaults,” Nehad Abul Komsan, chairwoman of the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights (ECWR) said. She added that, when women do report harassment and assault, police officers sometimes mock them or harass them too.
For Ekram Ibrahim, the sexual harassment started getting “really ugly” during clashes between police and protesters in 2011.
The 29-year-old journalist with a degree in mass communication was sexually assaulted during the 2011 Mohamed Mahmoud street clashes which occurred just off Tahrir Square. She had joined the protests with a group of male friends but their presence didn’t stop her assailants.
“They put their fingers up my bottom,” Ibrahim told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “I looked back and the guys had run away. People started saying ‘don’t go over there ... because they’re assaulting girls’.”
Ibrahim said she has not reported the assault to the police. Like some other Egyptian women, she doesn’t think the authorities are there to protect her.
“I don’t see any kind of response,” she said. “Of course it was safer before the revolution ... If only the police did their job things would be much better.”
Activists from organisations like OpAntiSH and Tahrir Bodyguards have played an important role in safeguarding women during demonstrations.
But so have individuals. Ibrahim recalled several occasions when men she’d never met before offered to walk her home if they saw her walking alone during demonstrations or at unsafe times.
Activists say Egyptian politicians’ response has been poor, with some conservative Islamists going as far as to blame the women themselves for taking part in demonstrations.
“The government wants to prevent women from being in Tahrir Square,” said Suad Abu-Dayyeh, Middle East and North Africa consultant for Equality Now, a rights group which has just launched a campaign to stop sexual violence against women in Egypt.
“(They are) trying to push women back into the houses,” she added.
However, the public outcry sparked by the attacks has prompted some action from the authorities.
Last month, the National Council for Women submitted to the cabinet a draft law to fight violence against women which proposes between one and five years in prison for harassers, according to local media.
The law was drafted at the request of Prime Minister Hisham Kandil – following an earlier vow to fight harassment – and President Mohamed Mursi set up a workshop to discuss the draft earlier this month.
“It is a positive step, but implementing the law is more important than drafting it,” Mohammad Naciri, deputy regional director of U.N. Women’s Egypt country office, said. He added that for implementation to improve, the police need thorough training in the law and the issues involved.
Some rights groups and organisations say there is not enough data to show whether the number of sexual assaults on women has risen recently. But they say the attacks have become more visible and more aggressive with the change in government.
Under former President Hosni Mubarak, the heavy presence of security forces meant that sexual harassment took place behind closed doors, but now it has exploded in public squares and streets.
Women are among the most vulnerable during any political transition, especially in a country with poor law enforcement. Added to that, Egypt’s honour-based culture means that if a woman is attacked, the honour of her whole family is considered broken.
But with the exit of the former dictator, Egyptian women have been encouraged to speak out more.
“There is more light being shed on it now due to the democratisation process, which has been accompanied by many women attempting to break the culture of silence and report on cases of harassment and violence,” Naciri said
But there's still a long way to go.
A survey recently published by U.N. Women Egypt and the Egyptian Demographic Center in the National Planning Institute found that only 1.1 percent of women and girls surveyed had reported sexual harassment incidents to the police, Naciri said.
(Editing by Alex Whitiing)
(Fixes spelling of name in paragraph 3,4)