Breaking the silence: Mob sexual assault on Egypt's Tahrir

Bel Trew, Tuesday 3 Jul 2012

Campaigns are being launched across Cairo in reaction to growing reports of brutal gang sex attacks against women on Egypt's flashpoint Tahrir Square; survivors break their silence

Sexual assault graffiti
Graffiti depicting a woman warding off Field Marshal Tantawi, his second in command and eliminated presidential candidate Ahmed Shafiq with pepper spray. (Photo: Bel Trew)

Reports of brutal gang sexual assault on women in the vicinity of Cairo’s Tahrir Square are becoming increasingly and worrying frequent.

For the first time women are coming forward in significant numbers with their stories. As a result, the issue is finally being addressed as a specific type of attack separate from the ongoing conversation about daily sexual harassment encountered on the streets.

Survivors of these attacks as well as other activists and NGO workers believe them to be organised and instigated due to stark similarities in the testimonies and the targeted nature of the attacks. The assaults occur during protests and marches, leading many to argue that they are regime-led attempts to discourage street mobilisation against the state.

Several new initiatives have been launched across the capital to raise awareness and spearhead creative ways of addressing the contentious issue. This Wednesday “Nafsi” (myself) campaign against sexual abuse of women is organising a “human chain” protest stand in Nasr City. On Friday there is a solidarity march called “Safe Tahrir” where activists plan to shame thugs by spray-painting those caught assaulting women.

The latest horror story was related by young British journalist Natasha Smith whose 26 June blog post entitled “Please God make this stop” spread across social media, gathering national and international media interest.

“Hundreds of men pulled my limbs apart and threw me around,” wrote Smith, who had described being surrounded by men near the Qasr Al-Nil entrance to Tahrir.” They were scratching and clenching my breasts and forcing their fingers inside me in every possible way.” 

Her testimony echoes numerous accounts from women, both foreign and Egyptian, about what has happened to them in the square, over the course of the last year and a half.

“There is a pattern emerging of groups of between 30 to 40 men attacking one girl at the same time,” explains Salma El-Naqqash, who has been collecting testimonies for Egyptian NGO Nazra for Feminist Studies.

El-Naqqash explains that many of those subjected to these attacks, like Smith, use the term rape.

“The men actually penetrate the women with their fingers as well as grope. It is a severe attack. This is different from harassment that happens on the streets on a regular basis.”

The assaults are most frequent in one particular area, she said, which is in front of Hardees restaurant where Mohamed Mahmoud Street meets Tahrir Square.

In November last year Caroline Sinz, a reporter for France 3 TV channel was mobbed by 70 men on that corner and on 8 June 2012 an “End Sexual Harassment” march was also violently attacked in the same spot.

The protest had been organised after a week of reported incidents against women by the burger joint, including the 2 June mobbing of one its coordinators Nihal Saad Zaghloul, American University in Cairo (AUC) masters student Rosa Navarro and European filmmaker who gave a testimony to the NGO Nazra under the pseudonym ‘C’.

“These mob assaults happen in every single mass gathering on the square,” Zaghloul explains, “Natasha wrote almost exactly the same thing that happened to us.”

“About 200 men were involved in our attack,” Navarro explains, relating what happened to them on 2 June. “I was the first to be grabbed, at least 30 or 40 guys tried to strip me of my clothes.” Navarro was thrown aggressively against the wall of Hardees. The incident lasted for 45 minutes.

Zaghloul, meanwhile had been dragged off into another group. The three women were separated.

“There were hands everywhere, you couldn’t even count them. It seemed like the central circle of ten men would change – as if they were taking turns,” Zaghloul described.

Their friend filmmaker C, who like Smith left Egypt immediately after the incident and is seeking psychiatric help for severe trauma, was subjected to particularly extreme violence.

Reminiscent of what Smith wrote in her blog post, Zaghloul described how the mob ripped the filmmaker's clothes off, so that afterwards "she had hand shaped bruises all over her body."

“They raped her with their fingers, she was being tossed around like a ragdoll,” said Navarro. “Then around 100 men dragged her into an alley way behind Hardees, where we couldn’t see or reach her.”

According to filmmaker C’s testimony, she eventually escaped, covered in dirt and wrapped in a large Egyptian flag, and was reunited with her friends in a nearby flat. The women were trapped in the building for an hour as the crowd of men waited outside.

Twenty-four-year-old NGO worker Imogen Lambert, who experienced a similar mob assault on the corner of Mohamed Mahmoud Street during the February 2012 clashes, describes these attacks as "relentless."

“This is what differentiates these incidents from casual sexual harassment in the street: the attackers are a lot more persistent, they are fighting you and anyone protecting you. They don't stop, even in the middle of a massive tear gas attack, like when I was assaulted. This is not normal.”

Who is behind it?

“They seem to be orchestrated, by anyone who benefits from having Tahrir not secured or from having people leave protests. It could be state police, government, you pick,” said Zaghloul. “If you beat up a woman, people leave pretty quickly.”

Architect and activist Pakiham Badra, who was in the attacked 8 June women's march, agrees.

Badra reported seeing unidentified men, claiming to be military and air force students, insist on breaking the male cordon protecting the women, claiming they wanted to join the protest.

She noticed that the numerous fights that broke out sparking the thug-attack, where women were surrounded, beaten and stripped, originated from the points at which these men had entered the march.

“It felt like we were infiltrated, at every point where they broke the male chain, a girl was snatched.”

The state using sexual violence against both male and female protesters as a means to quell dissent is not new. On 25 May 2005, which came to be known as “Black Wednesday,” tens of women taking part in a protest outside the Journalists’ Syndicate were assaulted by plain-clothed policemen and thugs run by both the then ruling National Democratic Party and the police.

State-led torture in the form of forced "virginity tests" on activists by military "doctors" and sexual abuse by both military and police officers during arrest and detention, is well documented. 

Eve Radwan, a 24-year-old program manager and music scout at Wasla FM, described being surrounded by over 15 military policemen during the clashes on Qasr Al-Aini Street in December 2011. They cut her t-shirt, attempted to strip her and “fingered her more than a hundred times.”

The levels of violence could point to the security forces, says Dr Mona Hamad, a psychiatrist at El-Nadeem Centre for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence.

Egyptian police, who are typically recruited from lower-class rural backgrounds, she explained, undergo a strict process of training: including brutalisation and brainwashing.

“After some time, they are psychologically affected – they are encouraged to be aggressive, become insensitive and lack empathy."

Nevertheless, Hamad believes it is likely to be a mix of types in the crowds.  "Men who have anti-social personalities (that is, they feel no guilt or humanity) or who feel over inhibited and develop hate and aggression towards women, will also use the opportunities [that crowded protests present]."

Navarro agrees, explaining that although it might require an organised group to instigate it, the assaults "depend on the men around to either get involved themselves or do nothing about it."

Mob mentality, Hamad says, can also contribute. It is a recognised behavioural phenomenon by social psychologists: people in large groups experience "deindividution" or a loss of self-awareness and so are less likely to follow normal social restraints, leading to a level of violence they would not typically engage in if they were alone.

These attacks are also not restricted to Tahrir Square. Women claim that reports of this type of violence in Cairo are on the rise, outside of the political sphere.  

"Almost everyday I hear stories from women being violently attacked by groups on the streets, not just harassed,” says photography student Rana, 24, who was recently mobbed in the middle-class district of Mohandiseen. “It's getting worse," she says.

There is also another precedent to these gang attacks. Incidents like the 2006 mass sexual assaults on women during the Eid holiday, El-Naqqash added, which were unrelated to politics, imply there is a significant societal problem.

Shamed and silenced

All the women agreed that despite it becoming more acceptable to speak about, the issue has yet to be properly addressed. 

Those subjected to sexual violence are stigmatised, their reputations are at risk if they talk, Hamad explains. Additionally women’s movements might become restricted as "parents may forbid her from joining further protests or even leaving the house for fear of another attack."

As is common with all instances of sexual violence against women, the victim is often blamed. One of the most common reactions the women told Ahram Online was: what were you wearing and were you alone? Below Natasha Smith’s blog post are endless comments holding her responsible as she is uncovered and blond.

This could be an example of what psychologists dub "victim-blaming": people transfer the responsibility onto those who are attacked, so that they convince themselves that these attacks only happen to a certain kind of person who behaves in a particular way. As such they avoid grasping the full horror that groups can and do assault women unprovoked. 

Some, the women said, simply refused to believe it happened.

The danger is then, Zaghloul explained, that we do not talk about it, “silence is always a sign of consent." It becomes a self-perpetuating cycle.

News skew

The way that the subject has been treated in the international media contributed to the problem.

One of the earliest documentations of a Tahrir-based mob attack involved CBS News TV correspondent Lara Logan, on the night Mubarak was toppled.

The incident appeared unique, El-Naqqash explained, the pattern of these assaults had not been documented; female activists had commented that Tahrir had been harassment-free during the preceding 18 days.

“There was a racist element to the coverage: Lara is blond, a famous journalist and foreign, she was attacked by Egyptian men.”

This has been taken to extremes by "political commentators" like conservative American writer Debbie Schlussel who blamed Islam for Lara Logan's attack.

In a 29 June blog post about Smith, Schlussel wrote: "in the case of Egypt, there isn’t civilisation. Just a mob of savage Muslims thirsting for uncovered, naive Western journalist female genitals to violate".

In the wake of this type of backlash, people accused Logan, however wrongly, of trying to discredit the revolution, El-Naqqash, explained.

This is an ongoing problem, as protesters continue to fight a PR battle with a state media machine that portrays them as thugs and spies, making women less likely to come forward.

“The accounts, like Logan's, have been described with an over-simplified Orientalism removed from any socio-political context: the “savages attacking” is not helpful,” Lambert said. She had previously refrained from giving a public testimony of what happened to her in February for fear that her story would be told "irresponsibly.”

“Particularly in international media, the testimonies are sensationalist and sexualised - this graphic and fetishised way of talking about the subject, with no discussion of the issues surrounding it, is actually quite insulting to the victim.”

Lambert believes this hijacks real conversation, "making women, whether Egyptian or foreign, unwilling to open up – a major setback for any initiatives trying to stop it from happening.”

The human cost

Lumping the issue of premeditated violent assault with daily opportunist sexual harassment has further muddled the issue. This is particularly so in terms of support for the survivors, many of whom suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and need specialist help and support.

“Victims feel humiliated, helpless. Many experience flashbacks, insomnia, restlessness and also hyper arousal – sounds become intolerable, they can’t be on the streets," Hamad explains. "In extreme cases they become completely isolated avoiding all stimulae." One patient, she recalled, was in such a state of shock that she could not speak.

Navarro said she could not leave her apartment for three days, "the day-to-day sexual harassment on the street was so bad that it doesn’t allow you to heal.” She is consequently moving to a residential area of Cairo as she "can't take downtown anymore."

Going forward

There are still many unanswered questions that need to be addressed: there have been no thorough investigations into these mass assaults, we do not even know how many times they have occurred.  

The fact that the issue is grounded in larger societal problems has yet to be confronted. In all the testimonies that Ahram Online gathered, the women mentioned onlookers who either verbally encouraged the violence or simply did nothing to prevent it. 

As El-Naqqash points out, “15 individuals of a group of attackers might be affiliated with the security forces but the numbers are so huge there must be other random men who just join in.”

There are no signs of the activists giving up or the initiatives dwindling any time soon.

“The image of my friend, lying on the floor, sobbing, her clothes torn off will haunt me forever,” said Zaghloul, “Nobody should suffer like the way we suffered, we’re not going to stop until we bring them to justice."

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