By Maria Caspani
The accounts of women sexually assaulted during protests in Egypt’s Tahrir Square are horrific not just for their sheer brutality but for the apparent level of organisation among huge gangs of assailants.
The degree of premeditation was revealed this week when state-run Ahram Online reported shocking details of mob assaults in the Cairo square where the country’s uprising began two years ago.
“All I remember is hands all over my body, grabbing under the layers of pullovers I was wearing, touching my breasts, opening my bra,” Ahram Online quotes an unidentified woman as saying.
“More hands on my back and legs, my trousers being pulled down … my empty hand tried to pull my trousers back up when I felt fingers inside my butt and shortly after in my vagina,” said the woman who reported her attack to the activist group OpAntiSH.
Finger-rapes appear to be common during attacks on women protesters in Cairo.
They are part of a recurrent pattern the Egyptian news site called the “circle of hell”. A mob of 200 or more men forms two lines and advances through the square, in search of one or two isolated women.
Once the “preys” have been singled out, the group surrounds them, locking them inside a three-line human circle.
“The men in the circle immediately surrounding the woman begin to strip the girl, the second circle includes men who claim that they are helping the girl (while) the third circle try to distract the people in the square from what is happening,” Hatem Tallima, an activist and member of the Revolutionary Socialists organisation, told Ahram Online.
As the mob gets bigger and messier, the assailants mingle with men who are genuinely trying to rescue the woman. This is meant to confuse the victim so that she can’t distinguish between who is trying to harm her and who is trying to help her.
Since the Egyptian revolution erupted on Jan 25, 2010, episodes like this have become fairly common during demonstrations and public gatherings in and around Tahrir Square, the most iconic symbol of the uprising, according to Ahram Online.
OpAntiSh, which sends activists into the square to rescue victims of sexual assaults, is one of several organisations born since the revolution– sometimes saving their lives.
It reported that, during the Jan 25 demonstrations, women were attacked with blades, some were bitten, and one woman was raped with a knife.
Hundreds marched in Cairo and outside Egyptian embassies in several countries last week to protest against sexual harassment and violence against women in Egypt. Women also gathered on Wednesday outside the office of the prosecutor general in Alexandria to protest against misogynist comments made by some high profile figures, according to the online Daily News Egypt.
Recently, some members of the Shura Council – Egypt’s upper house – made comments that were interpreted as implying that women protesters were responsible for sexual attacks on them during demonstrations, and suggested women should have designated areas to voice their discontent.
In a statement on its Facebook page, OpAntiSH strongly criticised the council’s remarks, saying they reflected “the ideologies and politics of a regime which provides apologies and political rationalisations for these heinous crimes, which in some cases constituted attempted murder”.
It also added that the attacks “lie at the surface of a deep and complicated pattern of harassment which clearly and persistently takes place during holiday celebrations and non-political gatherings”.
In its report, Ahram Online said not one arrest had been made in the numerous cases of sexual harassment and assault.
A few months ago, Heba Morayef, Egypt’s director at Human Rights Watch, told me that impunity for cases of violence against protesters - both men and women - has always been a major problem in the country.
The fact that many of the victims have reported the same pattern of attack has led some to believe that the episodes might not only be organised, but might also be a method of political repression.
The lack of investigation and prosecutions is certainly alarming. There is one positive fact though: Egyptian women are speaking out, and the attacks are widely reported in both international and national media. This suggests the overall climate is democratic enough to allow criticism.
Women are also taking practical steps to protect themselves when the state isn’t there to help. Another activist organisation, Tahrir Bodyguard, has recently launched a free self-defence course at a Cairo gym.
According to Egypt Independent, 30 women took part in the first sessions.