The circle of hell: Inside Tahrir's mob sexual assault epidemic

Yasmine Fathi , Thursday 21 Feb 2013

After almost two years, gang sexual assaults on female protesters in Tahrir Square are starting to gain public attention

The circle of hell:
"Egyptian women will live with dignity" - women at recent protest against sexual assaults in Cairo (Photo: Mai Shaheen)

Outside the safe house, the mob was pounding on the door. Ten girls were inside, cowering in fear. One had passed out and lay motionless on the floor.

The girls had been rescued from Tahrir Square after a mob of men attacked them. One was stripped; all had been sexually assaulted.

The safe house they were huddling in was a sanctuary; a place activists thought was safe. But the mob had followed them.

Activist Hussein El-Shafie and his friends were doing their best to keep the door closed, but no matter how much they pushed against the weight of the men outside, it was still half open.

El-Shafie, his weight pressed against the door, looked at a teenager standing outside with the mob and tried to raise his voice above the banging.

"Why are you so many? What do you want?" El-Shafie yelled at the boy.

"The women inside," the teenager answered. "We want them."

These were not the first women the mob had attacked on that day. It was 25 January, 2013, the second anniversary of the Egyptian revolution. Thousands of Egyptians had congregated in Tahrir Square. The chants for freedom, dignity and justice roared through the square as 19 women were sexually assaulted by groups of men. Seven were hurt so badly they needed immediate medical attention.

El-Shafie was in the square as a volunteer for the Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment/Assault (OpAntiSH), which works to end group sexual assaults against women in Tahrir Square and the surrounding areas.

The operation, which was formed in November 2012, reported that attacks on that day were organised and “included the use of life-threatening violence in some cases… blades and other weapons were used against women.”

The women were often raped by fingers, both vaginally and anally. They were either partially or completely stripped. The pushing and shoving that took place during the rapes often left them bruised. The knives used to rip their clothes off left gaping wounds on their bodies. Bite marks have also been found on some women, while semen has been found on others. One woman was raped with a knife.

Volunteers who work with OpAntiSH say that they typically have just two minutes to get to a woman being mobbed and save her. Any more than that could be too late.

Once a woman is saved, she has to be rushed to the hospital. Public hospitals often won’t take them in, so members of OpAntiSH have to gather money from one another to pay for a private hospital. The victims then have to be given anti-HIV medication, emergency birth control, and precautions have to be taken in case they have contracted Hepatitis C or an STD during the assault.

“All this trauma will probably have a horrible psychological impact that will stay with the girl for the rest of her life,” El-Shafie said. “Many women are also terrified that they may have lost their virginity.”

The circle of hell

During the attacks, the women often find themselves trapped inside what some have called “the circle of hell,” a mob of 200 or 300 men who fought with one another to pull, shove, beat and strip them.

Over the past two years, activists and human rights groups have been able to work out the pattern by which these attacks take place.

According to El-Shafie, a group of men usually form two lines and begin snaking through the square, while chanting and singing. Once they find a victim - usually one or two women standing alone - the groups forms a u-shape and then a complete circle around them, trapping them inside.

Hatem Tallima, activist and member of the Revolutionary Socialists, said the group then forms three concentric rings around the victim.

“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. The third circle try to distract the people in the square from what is happening,” Tallima said.

Masa Amir, researcher at Nazra for Feminist Studies NGO, says that there is a clear division of labour between the attackers.

“One takes her shoes off, another pulls her trousers off, then someone else takes her phone and watch,” she said.

Then it gets messy. The mob gets bigger and bigger.

“Many of the men are assaulting the women, and many others are trying to save her. The woman is confused and doesn’t know who to trust,” says Engy Ghozlan, founder of Harassmap, a volunteer initiative that works to end sexual harassment.

One woman, who was not identified, reported her attack to OpAntiSH, describing the dazed state she was in as she was being assaulted.

“All I remember is hands all over my body, grabbing under the layers of pullovers I was wearing, touching my breasts, opening my bra. More hands on my back and legs, my trousers being pulled down,” the woman said. “My empty hand tried to pull my trousers back up when I felt fingers inside my butt and shortly after in my vagina…. then more penetration with fingers from the front and the back.”

These attacks were not new and have been going on since the uprising two years ago.

A protester, who asked to be identified as “Mary,” went through a similar assault on the first anniversary of the revolution, while celebrating with her friends in the square.

“Suddenly my friend told me that she felt that we are in danger, and started pulling me so that we can get away,” Mary remembered. “But in seconds we were surrounded and they were touching every part of my body.”

Her ordeal lasted for two hours until the owner of a petrol station used a fire extinguisher to scare them off.

On 2 June, 2012, Rosa Navarro, a Mexican American studying in Egypt, also found herself trapped in the middle of a mob.

She was walking in Tahrir with several Egyptian activists near Hardees, a fast food chain in the square, which is usually dense with protesters. Suddenly the group were separated by a mob.

“Everything happened so fast. I was grabbed first by about ten men. They pulled me away from my friends,” Navarro said. “I lost track of my friends. All I could see was a human sea of people.”

Navarro was terrified as the mob closed in on her.

“The mob was crazy. It was like they were high on drugs,” said Navarro. “They were behaving like wild dogs trying to get a piece of me.”

A history of violence    

For decades, Egypt has experienced high levels of public sexual harassment. In most cases the harasser is an individual who whistles, catcalls or even grabs a woman while she is in public.

However, there were cases of mob sexual assaults before the revolution. In 2006, women out in public during a religious holiday were assaulted by groups of men in downtown Cairo. Mob sexual assaults were also common in stadiums after football matches.

During the 18 days of the revolution, many reported that Tahrir Square was surprisingly free of any forms of harassment.

However, on 11 February 2011, the day Hosni Mubarak stepped down, South African reporter Lara Logan was viciously attacked in Tahrir Square. Logan was covering the celebrations in the square for '60 Minutes' TV programme when a flock of men pulled her away from her team, then stripped her. "They raped me with their hands," Logan later said.

Logan’s story sent shockwaves through Egypt. But many questioned her account, sceptical that the apparently-utopian square which had been free of sexual violence during the revolution could be the site of such an attack.

In the months following the uprising, the attacks on women continued. Although some were reported and received media attention, many women refused to come forward, and many commentators were reluctant to discuss the issue in detail, afraid of tainting the image of the square.

However, finally after two years, victims are speaking up and others are listening; several have even given TV interviews about their experiences.

Who are the attackers?

Now that the problem is out in the open, many Egyptians are wondering about the identity of the attackers. In most cases, the attackers fade back into the ground. To date, no arrests have been made.

However, the fact that most of the women attacked reported the same pattern has led many to believe that the assaults are not only organised, but may be a political weapon used to crack down on women.

“The context of Tahrir is political and the attacks that happen there are probably organised,” argues Ghozlan.

“The question is, why is it only taking place in Tahrir Square?” Tallima asked. “Why not in front of the presidential palace [where many demonstrations have taken place] or during other large marches? Tahrir is targeted. It is the symbol of the revolution and they want to break it.”

Tallima argues that counter-revolutionaries have been trying for months to damage the image of the square. He said that during the notorious 'Battle of the Camel' in February 2011, the regime used Egyptians from the poor suburb of Nazlet El-Saman to wield an attack on the square to empty it of protesters.

“This was the regime using a certain class to end the revolution, but it didn’t work,” Tallima said.

“So they started other below the belt targets and began waging a psychological war against the square and telling people that it was filled with drugs and sex. But this also failed. So they decided to use gang sexual assaults to deal a final blow to the square and scare the women into not going.”

Not only would women, a vital part of the revolution, be scared, but many men would also feel repulsed by Tahrir’s new foul nature.

The viciousness of the attacks has also been alarming to many.

“One girl was raped with a knife. The horrifying nature of this attack and others do not give any sexual gratification unless you are a sadist,” El-Shafie said. “And they cannot all be sadists. The aim is to give women the worst experience possible so that they will never go back again.”

If the new gang attacks on women are a political weapon, it would not be the first time it is used in Egypt.

Politician Gamila Ismail was assaulted in 2001 when she was running for parliament against a member of Mubarak’s now dissolved National Democratic Party.

“I was attacked by 17 ex-convict women in front of the polling station,” recalls Ismail.

“The judges, supervising the elections, saw the attack. I even saw state security officers directing the attack.”

In 2005, several female reporters and journalists were beaten and stripped during an anti-regime protest in front of the Journalists Syndicate.

“The government took no action against this attack. It was clear that the state was sanctioning terrorism and intimidation of women,” said Said Sadek, political sociologist at the American University in Cairo (AUC).

The state, says Sadek, has been using sexual humiliation to crackdown on opponents for years. Neither men nor women are spared. He cites the case of Emad El-Kebeer, a microbus driver who was sodomized by two police officers in 2007. To humiliate him, they recorded the act.

“It was videotaped and spread in his area on purpose to humiliate him,” Sadek said. “This is called the shame culture.”

The government’s lack of response in the recent Tahrir gang assaults also raises question marks, says Sadek.

“Their silence is damning," Sadek said. “It makes them guilty and an accomplice. These rapists are either being paid or are working for someone.”

Prominent TV anchor Shahira Amin says that several journalists have been threatened that they will be attacked and scandalised by security forces during the past two years.

"These incidents have been happening since Mubarak stepped down. I personally believe that the counter-revolutionaries are doing this and trying to make it look like the Brotherhood is paying thugs to attack protesters. It is an attempt to vilify them," Amin said. "But they have been happening since the early days of the revolution before the Brotherhood came to power."

No concrete evidence has yet been found to prove that the attackers are hired to target women in Tahrir.

However, Amir, the researcher, says that the fact the attacks are so well thought out does not mean they are political.

“This could simply be the beginning of organised crime in Egypt,” she said.

In the meantime, women going to Tahrir Square are urged to be aware that they also may find themselves trapped in the circle of hell.

“I don’t think their tactic will scare women, but definitely any woman who goes to Tahrir must know the consequences,” says Ghozlan. “You may get shot, you may get tear gassed and you may also get raped and sexually assaulted.”

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