Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Pattern of violence against women in Cairo’s Tahrir Square emerges

Violence against women has long been used as a tactic of oppression during times of political upheaval and unrest. Recent reports suggest that this is currently taking place in Egypt, two years after the revolution left the country in a state of turmoil. Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo is the geographic and symbolic centre of the uprising. However, in recent years it has become the site of public acts of sexual violence against women.

An Amnesty International Report released recently details a trend of sexual abuse towards women protesters by mobs of men in Tahrir Square. The Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment/Assault organisation reported that 19 cases of sexual assault occurred against women in Tahrir Square on 25 January 2013, on the second anniversary of the revolution. Victims of violence commonly report being surrounded by a group of men who begin groping them, ripping off their clothes and sexually assaulting them. Women are threatened with knives and sticks. Victims are being raped both vaginally and anally with fingers. It was reported that one woman was raped with a knife. This type of sexualised gender-based violence is becoming more common, as it is aimed at deterring Egyptian women from taking part in protests and public life.

As Ahram Online reports, after two years of public sexual assault against women in Tahrir Square, activists and observers believe a pattern of violence has emerged.  In what has become labelled the ‘circle of hell’, a mob of men form three circles around the victim. The men in the first circle attack the woman, stripping and sexually assaulting her. The second circle of men claim to be helping the woman in an attempt to confuse her. The third circle attempt to distract the rest of the crowd from what is taking place. This tactic would be effective in preventing a woman from having a clear recollection of what occurred and make it difficult to identify the perpetrators.  

This pattern of behaviour suggests that violence against women in Tahrir Square is not the impulsive act of a few men, taking advantage of the confusion of the crowd. Rather, it suggests that this violence is consciously planned and executed in order to target and humiliate women protesters. Tactics of gender-based violence, and rape in particular, are commonly employed in war zones in order to control and oppress groups. In this sense, the gender-based violence perpetrated in Tahrir Square is increasingly being seen as an anti-revolutionary tactic of oppression. In fact, many activists have questioned whether the violence in Tahrir Square has been coordinated or even sanctioned by the state in order to silence and oppress women protesters.

According to some women’s rights groups and activists, the organised nature of the violence lies in the similar tactics used by perpetrators, the public nature of the violence and the political symbolism of Tahrir Square. Perpetrators are committing these acts publically without fear of prosecution, and so far no arrests have been made. Activists claim that authorities are failing to intervene to prevent violence or bring the perpetrators to justice. Many have also argued that the attacks in Tahrir Square can be seen as part of a wider pattern of violence against women in Egypt. In 2011, women protesters were subject to forced ‘virginity tests’ by the Egyptian armed forces. It has also been reported that women protesters were sexually assaulted under the reign of former President Mubarak.

At present, there remains a need to bring attention to the pattern of gender-based violence against women emerging in Tahrir Square. This violence can be seen as a planned tactic of oppression, rather than random attacks against women. As Egypt faces significant post-revolution changes and challenges, the need for women to take an active role in public life and debate has never been greater.

By Laura Fitzhenry

Nagaty, Yasmine ‘Egypt - A Revolution Against Shame’ The Middle East and North Africa Gender and Development E-Brief Issue No. 127 (December 2012)

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