Friday, 5 July 2013

Sexual violence is an Egyptian issue, not just a revolutionary one

This week, Human Rights Watch has reported that at least 100 assaults, including several rapes, have occurred in Tahrir in the last four nights alone. The demonstrations, calling for the resignation of Mohammed Morsi after just one year as president of Egypt, have been described (but as yet, unconfirmed), as the largest political protests in history, drawing out crowds of over 14 million people all over Egypt.

OP Anti-Sexual Harassment has claimed that the assaults were severe enough that the victims required immediate medical and/or psychological assistance. One victim, a 22 year old Dutch woman, was flown home after she was assaulted while taking photographs of the protests. Human Rights Watch has detailed how women were also beaten and attacked with knives. The reports are a sad reminder of the extensive and brutal assaults which occurred after the January 25th revolution of 2011. One must not, however, assume that sexual assaults are simply a tragic side-effect of, or are endemic to revolution. The issue of sexual violence against women is an Egyptian issue, not a revolutionary one. An issue for the revolutionaries to deal with, yes. An issue with revolution, no.

In an article for al-monitor, Alaa Al-Aswany remembers the days when sexual harassment was a rarity; before the Wahhabi-Salafist view of women as nothing more than a body became orthodox. Al-Aswany, a celebrated novelist, notes the absence of sexual harassment on the streets during the 18 day revolution in 2011. There were, no doubt, some unreported incidents; but it was the marked change, the sudden disappearance of the threat that was noted by both men and women during that first month of change. General consensus was that the change was here to stay. Sexual harassment violates the spirit of revolution. It fractures the solidarity. However, by the end of 2011, sexual violence was being used as a weapon against female protesters, and the spirit de corps was tested.

Of the many, the infamous ‘virginity tests’ are, perhaps, the most grave example of state conducted sexual violence against women. In March 2011, 17 women were arrested at protests and forced to undergo ‘virginity tests’. The state hoped to demonstrate the ‘immoral’ character of the women and thus claimed that their participation in revolutionary activity was nothing more than troublemaking. Others were subjected to sexual harassment on the street by the security forces and were subsequently arrested and ‘tested’ in order to discredit their claims. I use the phrase ‘virginity testing’ with great distaste. These ‘tests’ were no more than a sexual assault in themselves. They were done forcibly or with significant coercion. They violated the right of a woman to her body, to her privacy. According to Amnesty International, the women were beaten, given electric shocks, strip searched and were threatened with prostitution charges. Several complaints have been made against SCAF and the military doctor who assaulted the women. Most of the perpetrators harass and assault with impunity, and have, thus far, escaped punishment. This is but one of the many assaults on women that occurred in the aftermath of Revolution pt.1. The ‘blue-bra’ case, and the vicious beating and sexual assault of Mona Eltahawy are among the most publicised of these incidents.

Sexual violence stalks revolution in Egypt for several reasons. It is used as a weapon by anti-revolutionary governments, parties, groups or individuals to discourage participation, or to terrorise. Sexual violence is also opportunistic, and the opportunity to strike with impunity combined with the howls of the pack is typically all that it takes for a person to make the decision to harass or assault. Cairo, in particular, is teeming with these ‘packs’, who often commit the worst atrocities. 

Conversely, in Brazil and Turkey, there has been virtually no reported sexual harassment or assault during the recent demonstrations, minus a case in which young women were, like the women in Tahrir, violated by doctor, this time female. The women are taking their case to the European Court of Human Rights.
Prominent Egypian Blogger Zeinobia recently tweeted a comment directed at the now iconic ‘woman in red’ whose image became a symbol of the police brutality in Turkey when she was photographed being attacked by an officer. The tweet, ‘The woman in red in Turkey, I wish to wear such dress in downtown Cairo without fear, without protests, without sexual harassment’, is a reminder that, where women in other parts of the world can participate freely in public and political life (and to wear what they choose), Egyptian women pre-revolution, mid-revolution, and post-revolution do not enjoy the same security of being able to choose what they wear according to personal taste. Since most women in Egypt dress modestly according to religious and/or cultural practices, victim blamers have no grounds for arguing that Egyptian women invite sexual assault by the way they dress (or behave), ‘though the clerics and jingoists never fail to take this line. The marked difference in the number and type of reported harassment or assaults committed by security forces or civilians in other parts of the world compared to Egypt is at once alarming and unsurprising.
The Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights reported in 2008 that 98% of foreign women and 83% of Egyptian women had been sexually harassed by Egyptian men. In another survey, 60% of Egyptian men admitted to harassing women. It has not always been this way in Egypt. As Al-Aswany noted, the more extremist world views, which have gained prominence in recent decades throughout the region, have distorted how men see women. It has distorted how women see women; even how children see women. It is the view that a woman is a body: it cooks and bears children; it is machine-like by nature; lifeless and insensible in its passivity. This view, as deplorable as it is inaccurate, has influenced behaviours and instigated practices which not only marginalise, but also make orthodox psychological, physical and sexual assaults against women and girls.

At the root of the problem is a disregard for women. Women’s rights writers often refer to this as the disregard for the value of the woman. However, the claim that the perpetrators of sexual violence do so because they can’t see that a woman is valuable is erroneous. Offenders haven’t lost sight of the value of a woman, they have misplaced it. To these men and women, the value of the woman is in her bosom, not her brain. And her ability to imagine comes second to her ability to cook (here I am referring to the postures of the clerics in particular). Crucially, devastatingly, her tolerance for pain, her free will, her fear, also comes second to the desire of the perpetrator. The men and women responsible for sexual violence surely know, if only in secret, that they have assaulted a person, and not a tin man. But the thought does not live for long. It barely surfaces for a breath before it is forced back down in to the muddy depths by the thunderstorm of high-fives, the electric thrill of immunity, and the chorus of reassurances from a guild so secretive, even its members aren’t aware of their own affiliation. They are fruit sellers, teachers, taxi drivers, mothers, doctors, choir-singers, stone throwers, painters, writers. They are ordinary people in conventional places. The guild has reduced the dissent to a small breath and a quiet whisper.

But the thunderstorm is being met with indignation from the streets below. Revolution takes the small breath and the quiet whisper and uses them to kick up clouds of dust. The small breath and the quiet whisper contest the loud speaker wail and bark of the fanatics. They flit onto news desks and seep into television cables; they spill through keyholes and breeze under doorways. The small breath and the quiet whisper are supplanting the love of a flag with the love of the people who live in its shadow.

Written by Sawsan Bastawy

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