Women activists refuse to be cowed by sexual violence, marginalisation
Lina El-Wardani, , Thursday 8 Mar 2012
Sexual assaults at political protests have become all too common. Ahram Online asks if Egypt's ruling military council - or revolutionaries themselves - are giving the problem the attention it deserves

On 16 December, security forces attacked and beat protesters in front of the Egyptian Cabinet building, killing 12 and injuring hundreds. On the same day, news media broadcast footage of military police beating, stamping on and hitting protesters with bars, including a veiled woman whose clothes they had partially torn from her body.

Images of the woman being dragged along the ground with her blue bra exposed spread like wildfire across Facebook and Twitter. A few days later, thousands of women rallied in protest against the military's brutal treatment of female protesters. The march was protected by a cordon of male activists – a phenomenon that has since become standard practice. While some see it as a sign of solidarity and a genuine desire to protect women, others – especially feminists – say it leads togender discrimination and segregation.

"This protest was huge because it played on masculine and conservative notions that women should be covered," said Nevine Ebeid of the New Women Foundation, one of the feminist organisations that documents violence against women and an organiserof a scheduled 8 March women's march.

Ebeid added that, while what happened to the veiled woman had been a clear form of sexual violence, the reason people sympathised was her was not based on women's rights "or else we would have seen them protest when Salafists used a flower instead of a woman's image on their electoral lists, or when the quota for female MPs was lifted by the ruling military council." Ebeid laments the fact that equality between men and women is apparently not on the authorities' agenda – nor does it appear to be a priority for many revolutionaries.

Political participation, or lack thereof

Only 16 women were elected to parliament (both its upper and lower houses) in Egypt's first post-revolution election. Women took part in the revolution alongside men, but were forced off the scene immediately after Mubarak stepped down.

The committee drawn up by the ruling military council to make constitutional amendments includedno women, and each of the three governments formed since the revolution has contained only one or two women.

Even revolutionary forces such as the Egyptian Social Democratic Party have few prominent female members, particularly in leadership roles. In the media, meanwhile, we mostly hear men – and very few women – speaking on behalf of revolutionary forces.

Sexual harassment

On the day Mubarak was forced to step down last year, CBS correspondent Lara Logan claimed to have been attacked by a mob, subjected to extreme sexual violence and almost died in Tahrir Square while covering the celebrations.

Sexual assaults on journalists and activists at protests continue to mount at an alarming rate.

Egyptian police are notorious for sexually assaulting women during protests or while making arrests, but images of soldiers beating and stripping women shocked those who still had faith in the army.

On 19 December, General Adel Emara admitted that the attack on the woman in the blue bra had taken place, telling journalists: “Yes, this actually happened, and we’re investigating it. We will disclose the investigation's results in full."

To date, however, nothing has been announced and no one has been held responsible or punished.

"In all cases where the army is involved, they say they are holding an internal investigation – I think they actually do – and maybe the perpetrator is punished, but they never announce anything in order to protect soldiers' morale," said lawyer Rajia Omran, who attends most of the military and police trials against activists.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) called on Egyptian authorities to immediately stop violations against women in a strongly worded statement in December. It called for an independent, speedy and transparent investigation into the issue by the public prosecutor – not the army.

“Images of soldiers and police stripping, groping and beating protesters have horrified the world and brought into sharp focus the sexual brutality Egyptian women face in public life,” said Nadya Khalife, Middle East and North Africa women’s rights researcher at HRW. “The military and civilian authorities need to put a halt to criminal attacks on demonstrators once and for all.”


Women have used YouTube, blogs and social-networking sites to reveal the harrowing nature of the verbal and physical sexual harassment and violence they have suffered at the hands of the police and military.

"Many female protesters are threatened with rape in detention and are often told that any woman who joins a protest is a prostitute. Many women told us that when officers beat them with electric sticks they focused on the sensitive and private parts of their bodies," said Magda Adli of the Cairo-based Al-Nadeem Centre for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence.

Adli added that members of Egypt’s ruling military council often get angry if anyone brings up these violations or objects to them. While many activists report abuses, few follow up on their respective cases to make sure offending officers are punished.

Ghada Abdel Khaleq, 28, said in a video posted on YouTube that around ten state security officers had beaten her severely near the Egyptian Cabinet building on 16 December after she rushed to help another woman being beaten for protesting. She said she was detained, and that at least one officer physically and verbally attacked her in detention and made sexual threats against her. She said security forces beat her all over her body, pulled her hair, stepped on her face and chest andverbally assaulted her. She also saw other women protesters bleeding after being beaten.

On 19 November, Central Security Forces (CSF) officers arrested activist Sanaa Youssef during a demonstration on Mohamed Mahmoud Street near Tahrir Square and took her behind police lines. Youssef described what happened on her blog:

"I was in the midst of around 25 or 30 officers in CSF uniforms and plain clothes. One officer lifted his hand and said, ‘Don’t touch her.’ It was like a secret code to say, ‘Do whatever you want with her.’ One of them hit me in the face and another kicked me while a third pulled my hair so that I couldn’t move my head and they could slap me. I wish it had stopped there, but unfortunately, with great pain, I have to confess that their hands did not have mercy on my body and they sexually assaulted me with all their filth, brutality and lack of conscience. What made it worse is that two of them grabbed the two ends of my scarf around my neck and pulled them in opposite directions. I was choking and tried to pull the scarf away from my throat while they continued to assault me."

On 23 November, US-based Egyptian journalist Mona Eltahawy reported on Twitter that CSF agents had arrested her on Mohamed Mahmoud Street and at least four men had beaten and sexually assaulted her. She later testified:

"They were beating me with their sticks. I lifted my left arm to protect myself but they hit that too, which is when they broke it. While they were hitting me they were grabbing my breasts and genital area, putting their hands into my trousers. I kept saying, Stop it! Stop it! All this time they were insulting me, saying, 'You whore, You daughter of ...' They then pulled me by my hair toward the Ministry of Interior, still groping me whenever they could. They were like a pack of wild animals."

Egyptian Army Colonel Islam Jaffar was quoted in The New York Times as saying:

"She [Eltahawy] complained to me that she was beaten and sexually assaulted by the CSF….But what did she expect would happen? She was in the middle of the streets, in the midst of clashes, with no press card or form of ID. The press centre had not given her permission to be in the streets as a journalist. The country is in a sensitive situation. We are under threat. She could be a spy for all we know."

Official responses

For months, the Egyptian military refused to reveal whether it was conducting a genuine investigation into the “virginity tests” – another form of sexual assault – performed on women at a military prison in the Hikestep district on 10 March. It was only on 20 December, after the most recent incidents of sexual assaults on women, that Adel Morsy said: “The virginity test incident has been referred to the High Military Court and is currently at the trial stage.”

Human rights lawyers representing one of eight "virginity test" victims, Samira Ibrahim, filed a complaint on 23 June with the military prosecutor. Ibrahim’s lawyers filed a civil complaint on her behalf before the Council of State –Egypt’s highest administrative court –to challenge the military’s lack of action. The case challenged the administrative decision to conduct the "virginity tests" in the military prison. A court decree early this year ordered the immediate halt of such “testing.”

While the military council has toughened the penalties for rape and “indecency,” it has failed to enforce existing laws in cases that fall short of rape, allowing sexual harassment to go unpunished, and, like most of the military council’s decisions, the amendment came without consultation with NGOs or experts working on the issue.

"We didn't want them to toughen penalties – we wanted a clear legal definition of sexual harassment. We also wanted an article that defines sexual harassment in the workplace and has specific penalties, but no one listened to us," said Soha Abdelati of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.

Similarly, the military council surprised observers in February when it made appointments to the board of the National Council for Women's Rights without consultation – even with the appointees themselves. Some accepted the job, but others turned down the offersince they were not consulted, such as feminist Hoda El-Sada of the Coalition of Women Rights Organisations.

The message

The security forces send a clear message when using sexual violence against protesters. "The message is 'beat the weak and you scare the strong'. In a patriarchal society, if you beat women, you scare women and men," said Ebeid, adding that this was not a new strategy. "The military council did this with the Copts at Maspero, who were the first scapegoat of the revolution. This is how oppressive regimes operate – exactly like Mubarak used to. They attack marginalised groups and the whole society is scared."

Does sexual violence deter women from protesting? "On the contrary, most activists go back to the streets, even after severe sexual violence and horrific experiences during their arrest or in prison," said lawyer Rajia Omran, who was arrested herself while monitoring last year’s constitutional referendum.

In fact, many activists who were targeted and sexually assaulted – such as Rasha Azab, Salma Said, Nazly Hussein and Samira Ibrahim – continue to attend protests. Meanwhile, Mary Daniel, sister of Mina Daniel (who was murdered by army forces at Maspero last year), along with Zahra Said, sister of slain revolutionary icon Khaled Said, as well as the latter’s mother, also continue to regularly attend demonstrations and protest marches.