The authors, Serena Hollmeyer Taylor, Amy Tan, Phoebe Sloane, Maggie Tiernan, and Faiqa Mahmood are all students or alumni of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.
Between January 2011 and August 2013 there were over 700 cases of sexual harassment reported in Cairo. These cases include everything from catcalling to groping to rape with sharp objects. Sexual harassment of women is not a new issue, but it has escalated since the January 25th, 2011 revolution and overthrow of the 30-year dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak. Presently, many women report being afraid to attend political protests. As women try to negotiate their place in the evolving Egyptian political order, sexual harassment has raised questions about women’s access to public spaces and participation in political movements. According to a 2013 UN Women report 99.3% of Egyptian women, from a nationally representative sample, have experienced some form of sexual harassment.
The issue we seek to explore is sexual harassment committed by civilians against women at political protests in Cairo from 2011 to 2013. The two revolutions – one in January 2011, ousting the Hosni Mubarak government and the second in June 2013, overthrowing the Muslim-Brotherhood-led regime of Mohamed Morsi – created ruptures in Egyptian society that reshaped patterns of sexual harassment. Our paper presents an analysis of sexual harassment and violence committed during the revolutionary periods, during which it is difficult to identify perpetrators and their motivations. Instead of using literature on sexual harassment, we examine the increase in harassment of women at protests through the lens of scholarship on sexual violence during conflict.
The structure of this paper is as follows. It first outlines the scope and limitations of the analysis and gives a basic timeline of the period we will discuss. It then offers a succinct literature review to show how our analysis contributes to existing scholarship on increases in sexual violence during conflict and sexual harassment of women at political events. It proceeds to briefly summarize the pre-2011 history of sexual harassment of women and women’s rights in Egypt. Next, it outlines incidents of sexual harassment of women at political protests in Cairo between January 2011 and August 2013. In conclusion, it examines organized responses to sexual harassment that have arisen since 2011, driven mostly by civil society organizations trying to reduce sexual harassment during public gatherings. In our analysis, we find the increases in sexual harassment seen at these distinct societal ruptures comport with existing theory regarding “continuums of violence”, and we leave as questions what appropriate responses and prevention methods exist and can be employed.
Scope and Limitations
Our understanding of the definition of sexual harassment is drawn from work done on sexual harassment by the Egyptian organization HarassMap and scholar Mariz Tadros. Throughout our analysis, we employ the definition of sexual harassment formulated by HarassMap. According to HarassMap sexual harassment includes catcalls, comments, facial expressions, indecent exposure, ogling, phone calls, rape/sexual assault, sexual invites, stalking or following, and touching. Mariz Tadros’ framework to distinguish between socially motivated and politically motivated sexual harassment further informs our analysis of the different types of harassment. The incidents of harassment at political protests in Cairo include both socially and politically-motivated harassment and it is often difficult to distinguish between the two because perpetrators of harassment are difficult to apprehend and/or identify.
According to Tadros, perpetrators of socially-motivated harassment are driven “by diverse factors, including individual desires to enforce their dominion over women in the street, to have a ‘good time’ and ‘entertain’ themselves, and out of a perceived sense of sexual deprivation as a consequence of economic factors making marriage expensive and prohibitive.” Socially-motivated harassment is often both physical and verbal, and can include rape. Tadros uses Caroline N. O. Moser’s framework to define politically-motivated harassment as using sexual violence in a “conscious or unconscious [effort], to obtain or maintain political power.” Its forms include verbal harassment, assault, rape, and sexual torture, and it can result from various types of conflict, including “conflict between political parties” as occurred during the Egyptian revolutions. Both types of harassment were observed in the context of the Cairo protests.
We would like to note a few caveats before beginning our analysis. First, it is important to understand that sexual harassment at political protests in Cairo has not only targeted women. Men have been victims of harassment as well. While acknowledging the importance of sexual harassment against people of any gender, we have chosen to focus exclusively on sexual harassment of women in this paper. We limited the scope to women victims in part because of available data and because we believe that placing these incidents in the larger context of Egyptian women’s rights provide interesting insight into the increase in harassment against women since January 2011. Second, we have not conducted an in depth analysis into the different experiences of femininity in Egypt which are greatly influenced by religious, regional, socioeconomic, and other identities. Sexual harassment at political protests and in public spaces in general is a problem for Egyptian women of all backgrounds. A recent UN Women report showed that 67% of respondents believed that “all girls are subjected to harassment, regardless of attire, looks, manner of speech, or gait” and 87.7% reported that females of all social classes are subject to harassment. We have focused on harassment of women at protests in urban Cairo, as we are interested in the intersection of gender norms and political movements, and the Cairo incidents are well-documented. Exploring why different types of women are targeted and comparing experiences in different parts of Egypt are important questions for future analysis, but outside the scope of this paper.
Lastly, we do not wish this analysis to be used in making generalizations or Orientalist stereotypes about discrimination against women in Egypt or the larger Middle East. Several of the authors of this paper have spent time living in Cairo and have a great affection for Egypt. We have encountered many men and women there who stand up against harassment, and want to emphasize that the people perpetrating harassment at political protests are not the majority of Egyptians. However, we believe that the marked increase in sexual harassment of women at protests since January 2011 is an important phenomenon to understand so that interventions can be developed to successfully counteract sexual harassment of women in public, political spaces and hopefully prevent it from occurring in the future.
In examining incidents of sexual harassment committed by civilians against women between January 2011 and June 2013, it is useful to chart the events on a timeline. Three distinct time periods emerge – (1) the eighteen days leading up to the fall of Mubarak, or the “January 25th revolution,” (2) an inter-revolutionary period that lasted from February 2011 to June 2013, and (3) a third period of mass protests lasting from June 30th, 2013 to August 14, 2013, that continue today in Egypt. The January 25th revolution was marked by remarkably low levels of sexual harassment. During the inter-revolutionary period, however, levels of sexual harassment, already prevalent in Egypt, rose significantly. This rise in sexual harassment at political protests continued throughout both the rule of the Egyptian military’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) from February 2011 to June 2012 and the elected Muslim Brotherhood-led regime of Mohamed Morsi from June 2011 to June 2013. Large protests again marked the June 30, 2013 regime change in Egypt, which deposed Morsi and reinstated military rule. This period also featured high levels of sexual harassment at public gatherings. Throughout the inter-revolutionary period, as sexual harassment rose, organized responses began to counter harassment of women at protests. We have mapped out these events on the following timeline, which will serve as a reference and be explored in greater detail throughout this paper.
There is a significant body of literature examining sexual harassment and women’s roles in political protests in Egypt and elsewhere. However, this literature does not draw upon scholarship about increases in sexual violence during times of conflict. We believe that adding the perspectives of Margaret Walker, Elisabeth Wood, and Hugo Slim to the literature on Egypt sheds new light on why there has been a reported increase in sexual harassment of women at political protests since the January 2011 revolution. Other theorists in a variety of disciplines also contribute to the greater understanding of the evolution of sexual harassment at political protests; their contributions are discussed below.
Various authors have examined the way gender violence may change during a conflict. Margaret Walker explains that a “continuum of violence” exists—a continuum that, in a normal day, may silently accept street harassment, or domestic violence, or marginalization of women. When a rupture in society occurs—such as that of Egypt’s ongoing political turmoil—in certain societies violence can be expected to ratchet up to an extremely violent and sexual level: gang rape and rape with objects become relatively common occurrences, for example. Although the revolutions of 2011 and 2013 are not instances of armed conflict per se, they marked acute societal conflict. Walker’s framework is therefore a useful tool for understanding what is happening to women in this setting as both an acceleration of particular pre-existing behavior and as “shattering experience[s] of discontinuity,” the experience of which is highly dependent on women’s class, ethnicity, and other identities.
Elisabeth Wood in “Variations in Sexual Violence During War” seeks to explain the variation in sexual violence between peacetime and a time of conflict. Wood presents a framework for organizing explanations in variation in sexual violence. First, under ordinary circumstances, individuals differ in their interests in sexual violence: some may use violence to attain sexual gratification; others may use sexual violence for a sense of domination and control, while others still may not be interested in sexual violence at all. Such expressions of sexual violence are ordinarily regulated by a variety of social mechanisms that differ among countries and their sub-social groupings. Second, during a time of conflict or upheaval, such mechanisms are weakened, resulting in higher levels of sexual violence as the opportunity and incentive increases. Third, the extent to which this social mechanism breaks down varies across conflicts and groups.
There have been many reports in Egypt of men joining in ongoing harassment and incipient mob violence. Hugo Slim helps us to understand why, in situations of conflict, many individuals might join in such violence. As with Walker, Slim presents his findings in the context of the study of war. In our example, the societal rupture and upheaval witnessed in Egypt after the fall of a thirty-year-old dictatorship makes a comparison possible. In seeking to understand what compels ordinary people to commit extraordinary acts of violence, Slim posits the 80 percent rule: “given certain condition, 80 percent of us will either collude or directly participate in acts of violence.” Such conditions include a general feeling of being permitted to do acts that would, under normal circumstances, be unacceptable.
Scholars have addressed gender in Egypt broadly and, more specifically, the patriarchal system and masculinities that existed prior to the revolution. Sherine Hafez’s work describes the “multilayered patriarchal power, both rapidly changing and challenged is at the heart of the uprising in Egypt.” Cynthia Enloe warns of the necessity of being “acutely conscious of the patriarchal stereotypes that, for at least a century, have been wielded with the aim of discounting, trivializing or delegitimizing women activists and their critiques of patriarchal political systems and movements.” Using the idea that sexual violence is a potent form of verbal and non-verbal communication, Enloe continues to highlight the way in which these characterizations of women are used against them when they try to bring women-specific concerns about sexual violence and harassment to the forefront and cites examples in Vietnam, France, Poland, Algeria, Eritrea, Nicaragua, Mexico, New York and Chile. Enloe also describes pro-democracy feminist activists as considering sexual harassment to preclude women’s full participation in citizenship as they feel unsafe in public spaces. Valentine Moghadam also highlights the role of women and women’s movements in democratization and revolution, commenting that women’s movements are not identity movements, but, as “women’s organizing tends to be inclusive and women’s movement activism often involves the explicit practice of democracy,” they are democratizing movements. However, this distinction does not seem to have immediate consequences in Egypt as the women’s movements were seen as a distraction from the revolutionary message of democracy once the Mubarak regime had fallen.
Moreover, it must be noted that patriarchy and masculinity have been instrumentalized to an extent by women activists in Egypt, exemplified by Paul Amar’s citing of Asmaa Mahfouz: “show your honor and manhood and come down to Tahrir on 25 January. If not, then you are a traitor to the nation, like the police and the President are traitors.”
Turning now to specific theory regarding sexual harassment at political protests in Egypt, we examine Paul Amar’s work on public sexual harassment and assault by government and security forces in Egypt both before and after the Egyptian Revolution. His work on masculinities and hyper-visibility of gender and class give an important background to any considerations of gender, harassment, and political protest. He mentions the sexual assault of Lara Logan as an example of the instrumentalization of the “discourse of the ‘frenzied’ Arab mob and its uncontrollable sexuality.” Amar emphasizes this is an Orientalist and essentialist perspective and encourages a focus on the actions of the state. In the spirit of noting that this is not just a “frenzied Arab mob” phenomenon it must be stated that harassment is not unique to Tahrir Square and the Egyptian revolution, as clearly illustrated in a 2011 article by Tina Dupuy. Dupuy describes the harassment and rape of protesters in the large and complex Occupy movement in the United States and describes the use of these instances as a chance for opposition to discredit the movement. Further, Dupuy describes responses that ask “you know you’re vulnerable, so why are you out there?” This victim-blaming is an unfortunately familiar trope described in nearly all the sources of literature about sexual harassment and assault in public spaces.
Sexual Harassment at Political Protest in the Context of Women’s Rights in Egypt
Recalling Margaret Walker’s work on the theoretical construct of the “continuum of violence,” and how it exerts a significant influence on the types of violence that women will face in situations of violent conflict, we can now turn to the period preceding the instances of sexual harassment that are the focus of this paper. Though the revolutions of 2011 and 2013 are not instances of armed conflict per se, they marked acute societal conflict. Walker’s framework is therefore a useful tool for understanding what is happening to women in this setting as both an acceleration of particular pre-existing behavior. The aim of this discussion is to connect the analysis of sexual violence committed against women at the Egyptian political protests from January 2011 – August 2013 to the period preceding the protests, though Walker’s framework applies during the different periods of political upheaval as well. Two issues merit further examination to provide some insight into the events of January 2011 to August 2013: institutional discrimination against women, and pre-existing levels of sexual violence against women, specifically sexual harassment.
Institutional Discrimination and Sexual Violence pre-2011
Institutional discrimination against women by way of exclusion from social, economic, and political positions of power and denial of equality before the law was a problematic feature of pre-2011 Egypt. For instance, in its 2010 assessment of the Egyptian report on the implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), the CEDAW Committee raised concerns regarding the “persistence of a significant number of discriminatory laws and provisions… that deny women equal rights with men” and “the continuing underrepresentation of women in public, political and professional life and in decision-making positions.” It also noted inequality in Egypt’s personal status laws related to marriage, divorce, the custody of children, and inheritance. Many of the NGO shadow reports submitted to the Committee echo the same concerns. For example, the report prepared by Dr. Fatma Khafagy for the Alliance for Arab Women in 2009 highlights access to justice for women as an issue, especially impoverished women, and laments discriminatory family law that favors male custody rights over children. This is by no means a comprehensive review of all of the forms of institutional discrimination against women in Egypt in the period prior to January 2011, but it offers a glimpse into the existing social structures that characterized elements of Egyptian society prior to January 2011.
In addition to institutional discrimination against women pre-dating the January 2011 – August 2013 period, observed sexual violence against women, specifically sexual harassment, was notable in its prevalence and use during political moments, such as anti-government protests. Noting its prevalence, the Center for Egyptian Women’s Legal Assistance (CEWLA) in its 2010 Shadow Report to the CEDAW Committee found that sexual harassment was on the rise, especially collective sexual harassment which they describe as sexual harassment occurring, for instance, at mass gatherings on the streets of Cairo.They highlight the following statistic collected by another women’s rights NGO – “62% of men interviewed by the center admitted that they had sexually harassed a woman once or more” – and a 2008 survey conducted by the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights presents the complementary statistic that 83% of Egyptian women indicated they had been sexually harassed.
In addition to being widespread, sexual harassment against women has also been instrumentally leveraged at previous moments of political protest. The use of sexual harassment by security forces under the Mubarak regime at the protests of May 25, 2005 stands out. In the report Sexual Assault and Rape in Tahrir Square and its Vicinity: A Compendium of Sources 2011-2013, Dr. Magda Adly notes that “[n]o one can forget tragedy of 5/25/2005 when security forces cleared the way for ‘thugs’ and [Mubarak’s] men … to violate women in front of Saad Zaghlul’s memorial and the Press Syndicate. We cannot forget the words of one policeman to a female protester on that day, explaining the violence used against female protesters, ‘so you would stop taking part in demonstrations again.’” This vignette brings out the way in which sexual violence has been used previously to send a message to political protestors and punish gender transgression. While this is just one instance against a background of widespread sexual harassment it serves to highlight certain behaviors observed in Egyptian society prior to January 2011 that would be again seen during the political protests thereafter.
Women participating in the revolutionary protests carry this legacy of institutional and societal discrimination, from civil society and the state. Scholars and activists alike acknowledge the influence this legacy has on the experiences of sexual violence by women during the political protest that took place from January 2011 to August 2013. As succinctly stated in the position paper by Nazra for Feminist Studies included in Sexual Assault and Rape in Tahrir Square and its Vicinity: “While we recognize the political nature of the crimes in the Tahrir area, we cannot separate this from the general harassment women face in Egypt in the public sphere. The most recent incidents are simply a repugnant expression of what can happen once women’s issues are ignored and not discussed as part of a larger public debate. In our view, those recent events are a brutal escalation of the widespread social pathology that is sexual violence” (emphasis added). Understanding these incidents both a part of the continuum of violence and as ruptures is critical to the analysis of sexual harassment against women at political protest in Egypt after January 2011.
Sexual Harassment of Women at Political Protests in Cairo, January 2011 – August 2013
The January 25, 2011 revolution in Egypt, though not an armed conflict, can be described in Walker’s framework as an event that “in many and profound ways suspended, deformed, or destroyed” social order. As millions of ordinary Egyptians took to the streets to demand the end of a thirty-year-old dictatorship, the staunchly patriarchal normative order of society was suspended, on a macro as well as micro level. On the macro level, Egyptian society as a whole rose up against the patriarchal state system where obedience had so far been expected and received by state authority in exchange for substantial government subsidies on transport, food and education. On a micro level, the rupture allowed women to make choices outside of the “normative social behavior” dictated by the old order. Thus, unprecedented numbers of women participated in the protests on an equal footing with men.
This disruption at first proved positive for women attending protests. What was most remarkable about the eighteen days leading up to the fall of Mubarak was the creation of a “safe space,” a spontaneous and unified suspension of patriarchal norms to allow women the freedom and ability to express themselves politically. The societal rupture that led to the creation of a “safe space” at political protests, rather than a deterioration of pre-existing conditions merits closer examination. The dynamics may be described by Victor W. Turner’s “liminal moment” – when those being moved in accordance with a cultural script are liberated from normative demands, when they are “betwixt and between successive lodgments in jural political systems.” According to Turner, in this gap between ordered worlds, almost anything can happen. Anthropologist Hania Sholkamy, uses Turner’s idea of “liminal spaces” to explain the changes in interactions between men and women during this time. Sholkamy characterizes the eighteen days as a “‘liminal’ [moment] in which hierarchies and structures of distinction [were] temporarily suspended.” The “liminality” of the moment can help explain the magical, now almost mythical quality of the “eighteen days” observed by the protesters as well as outsiders. This is supported by the words of one female protester:
“Where I might have normally seen division according to class, gender, and religion, I only saw acceptance and understanding. For the first time in my life, men didn’t deal with me as a woman but as a fellow citizen. That sense of unity still doesn’t cease to impress me. It was as though everyone suddenly had an epiphany and discovered they were all Egyptians.”
Records of reported sexual harassment mirror these sentiments. According to records collected by HarassMap, in the eighteen-day period between January 25, 2011 and February 11, 2011, there were only eight cases of sexual harassment reported. By way of comparison, during the eighteen-day period immediately prior to January 25th, from January 7th to January 25th, 2011, a total of 82 cases of sexual harassment were reported to HarassMap. While the drop in incidents documented by HarassMap might be seen to represent merely a drop in reporting because of the chaos of the revolution, the drop in actual incidents of harassment at political protests is corroborated by many protesters and journalists, as outlined above. This significant drop in numbers is indicative of the suspension of the normative social order.
Sholkamy argues that the social structure normalized with “the presidential exit and the entrance of interim leadership” meaning the installation of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. We would argue that, in fact, the overarching social structure ended its “liminal moment” almost immediately after the fall of President Hosni Mubarak, as evidenced by the very public and violent assault on CBS reporter Lara Logan. This highly visible and noteworthy assault is discussed in the next section.
Inter-Revolutionary Period: February 2011 – June 2013
The fall of Mubarak on February 11, 2011 marked the beginning of the second period, or “inter-revolutionary period,” during which incidents of sexual harassment and violence rapidly escalated. One of the most well-reported cases of sexual assault was that of Lara Logan, a South African journalist for CBS, who was assaulted only hours after Mubarak announced he would bow out of the presidency. Logan described how, while trying to cover the celebrations taking place in Tahrir Square, she was suddenly dragged away from her crew and bodyguards by a group of men. Logan was assaulted by a mob for approximately 25 minutes, during which her clothes were torn off and men raped her repeatedly with their hands. She reports seeing some of her assailants taking pictures and videos, suggesting elements of Slim’s idea that violence can be pleasurable and encourage bonding among perpetrators. She was dragged along by the mob until they reached a fence where Egyptian women were camped. She was eventually retrieved by the group of women and a group of about 20 soldiers who beat back the mob with batons and took Logan and her crew back to their hotel. Logan was hospitalized for 4 days after the attack. The identities of the perpetrators of the assault are still unknown, there were no arrests made and no police case was filed. This is one of the many cases of sexual assault at a political protest where it remains unclear whether the assault was socially or politically motivated.
Many incidents of sexual harassment were reported during the celebrations that followed Mubarak’s ouster. The departure of Mubarak brought an interim government to power that was lead by the Supreme Council of Armed Forces, or SCAF. Although the most urgent goal of the revolution had been met with Mubarak’s fall, protests across Egypt continued through 2011, as Egyptian protesters kept up the fight to rid the government of remnants of the old regime, and to keep up the pressure on the interim military rulers to transition to democratically elected government.
These cases of sexual violence can be seen as one dramatic example of the re-emergence of gender-normative violence on Margaret Walker’s continuum of violence, and can be further explained by Hugo Slim and Elisabeth Wood. Applying Walker’s theory on the societal level and Slim’s theory on the individual level help us to understand the reasons that violence was particularly sexual during these political protests. The “extremes of war” certainly apply here—although the political protests were not war, per se, they still represent a rupture, and similar to Walker’s argument, can help to explain how and why men engaged in this particular type of violence. On an individual and small-group level, Slim helps us to understand how and why people might condone these new extremes of sexual violence. Many survivors of assault in Tahrir Square reported an increase in the size of the mob as the assault continued. Slim argues that can be attributed to notions of pleasure, power and bonding – the violent act is not only seen as a source of deriving sadistic pleasure, it also becomes a means of creating a sense of belonging or bonding. These arguments tie in with the explanations presented by Elisabeth Wood, who explains that as social mechanisms regulating sexual violence break down during times of upheaval, a change in the incidence of sexual violence often occurs. Thus where it might lead to an increase in sexual violence amongst some groups, such as the secular protest groups in Tahrir Square, it can lead to reduced levels of sexual violence as compared to peacetime level, as observed in the conservative, pro-Morsi sit-ins in Nasr City. Looking through Wood’s framework at the protests that started in February 2011, the rise of sexual harassment that emerges is hardly surprising. Egyptian society had until recently trivialized sexual harassment as “flirting,” and possessed few social mechanisms against sexual harassment and violence. These social mechanisms were even further weakened due to societal ruptures,
In addition to rising harassment at all protests, some tried to sideline issues of women’s rights in the larger debates about Egypt’s political future. These events follow the framework laid out by Enloe and others, in which larger political movements often “trivialize or delegitimize women activists and their critiques of patriarchal political systems and movements.” In March 2011, political activists called for a “Million Woman March” to coincide with the International Women’s Day. The call attracted only about a thousand women, and soon degenerated into shouting matches, and sexual assaults on the female protesters. A counter-protest quickly took shape with participants shouting, “Men are men and women are women and that will never change. Go home, that’s where you belong.” These events suggest that the Egyptian social order was returning to former patriarchal stereotypes and moving beyond the temporal constraints of its liminal moment.
In the contest between Egyptians’ calls for civilian rule, and the military council’s refusal to step down from power throughout 2011 and early 2012, women’s bodies continued to be the political battleground where increasingly heavy-handed military tactics were used to send a message to the men. Despite all this, two remarkable incidents were brought on by the military’s attempts at repression of women. First, in the wake of the forced “virginity tests” conducted on female protesters demanding the military’s removal from power, Samira Ibrahim, one of the victims filed an official court case against the test. In speaking out against the test, she broke the social taboo against silencing sexual violence. Second, in response to widely circulated images of a young woman being dragged half naked and kicked by soldiers, what became known as the “blue bra girl,” thousands of women took to the streets in an unprecedented show of defiance and solidarity. Thus, although soldiers, not civilians committed the violence against female protesters, it fit neatly into the gender-normative violence framework presented by Margaret Walker. The violence against women functioned as a way of the soldiers confirming their authority over ordinary men by displaying “more power over more women.”
The Second Revolution or Coup: June – August 2013
The third time period that we examine surrounds the June 30, 2013 protests held to mark the one-year anniversary of the election of President Morsi. On July 3, 2013, the military removed President Morsi from power and put him under house arrest. This was a victory for the secular opposition to his government and a stinging defeat for the Muslim Brotherhood. While crowds in Tahrir Square celebrated, the deposed president’s supporters in Nasr City vowed to continue staging a sit-in until their democratically elected leader was restored to power. Unlike previous protests, now protesters belonged to two distinct and opposed camps. The two groups can be broadly classified as the secular, anti-Morsi camp and the religiously conservative, Islamist pro-Morsi camp. There was a marked difference between the two camps in terms of incidents of sexual harassment, with no cases of sexual assault or harassment reported in the conservative, pro-Morsi camp. In contrast, between June 30th and July 17th at secular anti-Morsi protests in Tahrir Square, there were at least 186 counts of sexual mob crime.
One obvious reason for the stark difference is the fact that pro-Morsi sit-ins were gender segregated. Another reason could be the very obvious pride that the conservative camp derived from the lack of incidents of sexual harassment. As remarked on by Wood, group norms can be highly influential in regulating the emergence and patterns of sexual violence. However, it should be noted that the Muslim Brotherhood’s remarks on sexual harassment may have had the additional effect of further discouraging any females at the sit-in from reporting cases of harassment, for fear of hurting their cause and their distinction from the secular groups.
The sit-in in Nasr City continued until August 14, 2013, when military forces moved in to forcibly clear the site and end the prolonged protests. More than 200 protesters were reported to have been killed by military gun-fire. With no political compromise in sight, the military’s actions left Egypt more polarized than ever.
Responses & Their Implications
To counter escalations in sexual harassment of women at political protests, several organized responses have arisen or intensified in recent years. These responses are gendered, as is the sexual harassment that sparked them. This analysis explores the form and gendered implications of direct intervention to stop harassment incidents when they occur, public documentation and condemnation of harassment, and official sanction of harassment since 2011 by various parts of the Egyptian government. We posit that direct intervention often requires the help of men to stop harassment, and could be seen as contributing to men’s control over women’s lives and access to public spaces. Public documentation and condemnation as well as official sanction offer both women and men more opportunities to define their experience of sexual harassment and shape debates over how to reduce this practice.
Several organizations have arisen to directly combat sexual harassment at political protests and stage rescue operations for women under attack. Though these organizations play an important role in making protests safe for women in the short-term, their teams are often made up of men and they are only one part of a larger systemic change. Two of the best publicized are Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment and Tahrir Bodyguard. Tahrir Bodyguard was founded in November 2012 by Soraya Baghat after she heard that women were afraid to go to protests because of reports of sexual harassment. She tweeted about the issue of harassment at protests and gathered volunteers through Twitter. It is an organization made up mostly of male volunteers, who have other full-time jobs. Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment was founded informally by employees of various human rights organizations, including the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. In both Tahrir Bodyguard and Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment teams of men and women respond to reports of harassment from their central offices or through websites. They enter crowds, fight off attackers, then usually form a circle around women and bring them out to safety. Men usually have to do the majority of directly taking women out of crowds, as they are attacked by other men who are perpetrating harassment. Women volunteers often help post-rescue to calm women down and bring them to a safe house where they can recover and get medical treatment or counseling if they want it. In the protests to oust President Mohamed Morsi in late June and early July 2013, Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment reported 105 out of the 186 victims reported to them were rescued.
It may be a reality of this security situation that men are needed to fight off male attackers, as women trying to help other women are often attacked and harassed by men themselves. Yet this mode of intervention in some ways perpetuates men’s domination of women as outlined by Walker, who says that “men’s everyday control of and authority over women’s lives… is at once an expression of women’s subordination, a means of sustaining male control, and a prerogative permitted by maleness as a social standing.” The groups themselves have debated these issues as they do not want to spread the idea that women need the protection of men at protests or in other public spaces. Women are part of the leadership of both groups, though the intervention teams include more male members. Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment has stated that women must participate in interventions and that its teams “believe in full and equal participation of women without trying to impose protection or guardianship from men.” Still there are usually more men than women in Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment’s teams. Tahrir Bodyguard was originally made up of male-only teams on purpose, with a role for women in awareness-raising, but they found that the women being rescued were more trusting of other women volunteers, and “women were needed to communicate with the survivor.”
There are also efforts to document and publicly condemn sexual harassment at protests. HarassMap began in 2010 but has been an important part of the anti-sexual harassment movement since January 2011. People can report incidents of sexual harassment via text message or on HarassMap’s website. HarassMap adds them to an interactive map of Egypt. Anyone with internet access can look at all of the incidents throughout Egypt or in particular neighborhoods of cities. The anonymity of reporting on HarassMap is important, as many women are blamed for or feel ashamed of harassment incidents. This tool allows victims to report incidents and even ask for services. HarassMap also gathers and analyzes data about where harassment occurs, what type of harassment occurs, and who both the perpetrators and victims are.
Local and international human rights organizations also document and report incidents of sexual harassment. Many of these groups were combating sexual harassment before the January 2011 revolution and have continued to do so since. Human Rights Watch, for instance, documented 91 sexual attacks during protests occurring from June 30 – July 1, 2013. The Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights, Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, El Nadeem Center for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence, and Nazra for Feminist Studies have all released reports on sexual harassment during political protests since January 2011. Female leaders and staff are integral in these groups’ lobbying for change, and this type of work can offer an avenue for educated women to participate in opposing sexual harassment. Local artists have also taken graffiti to public spaces that condemns sexual harassment and presents an air of defiance to it in a powerful and visible way.
Government responses and sanction towards the perpetrators of harassment has been varied throughout this period. We attribute this variation to two factors: (1) this period has been characterized by several changes in the government; and (2) the Egyptian government is not a monolithic entity, containing different institutions with varied motivations and goals. At times, the government has been accused of using sexual violence as a tool to deter protesters; other parts of the government have taken perpetrators to task. There have been a few positive, if piecemeal, responses to sexual violence.
For instance, the Interior Ministry established a new department during Mohammed Morsi’s presidency to address sexual harassment. The department is designed to “receive” victims of sexual harassment, while a different department within the Ministry is responsible for arresting perpetrators. A government commission also drafted legislation to criminalize sexual harassment. In October of 2013, after Morsi’s ouster, the Interior Ministry announced that it would “deploy criminal investigations personnel” during the Eid holiday in order to address the sexual violence that tends to result from large crowds. However, according to a journalist in Egypt, it appeared that these squads were absent during Eid Al Adha celebrations in October 2013.
Although our paper focuses on sexual protest perpetrated by civilians, we found it useful to examine how the Egyptian government responded to Samira Ibrahim’s suit for the “virginity tests” conducted by the military. Ibrahim won the suit in an administrative court, and this was the first time that the civil court had reprimanded the military, and was considered to be a very significant move. Despite Ibrahim’s victory, it is important to note that she is the only victim of harassment perpetrated by government or civilians since January 2011 to have successfully prosecuted her harassers on any level. The difference in legal responses highlights the point that the Egyptian government is not monolithic, but that legal recourse for harassment is rare in Egypt.
The variety of responses to increased sexual harassment at political protests since the 2011 revolution raises questions about the role women will play in defining their political role in Egypt’s transition. The choices around who will be included in these anti-harassment efforts are critical to understanding how women control the debate around their access to public spaces. Walker’s theory helps us to see how men have controlled women’s roles in the past, while Enloe reminds us that when women begin to bring concerns about violence against women, particularly sexual harassment, into the sphere and conversation, they are seen as distracting from the political movements’ original and primary goals. It remains to be seen what the outcome of all of the anti-harassment efforts will be in Cairo and throughout Egypt.
Our analysis reveals that sexual harassment at political protests in Cairo has arisen out of the social rupture of two significant revolutions and regime changes since January 2011. Heightened sexual violence is related to social conflict, even in the relatively non-violent political conflict in Egypt. However, sexual harassment of women at political protests is not a given, rather it depends on group norms, as shown by the lack of sexual harassment between January 25 and February 11, 2011 and at Muslim Brotherhood pro-Morsi protests in 2013. Public sexual harassment of women at political protests has been used to send both social and political messages, trying to keep women out of public spaces and to keep women’s rights off of the national political agenda. The role of women, even in preventing their own harassment, continues to be debated, even in groups that seek to intervene in harassment incidents such as Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment and Tahrir Bodyguard. In such large public gatherings as protests, there is little certainty over who the perpetrators of harassment are and what motivates them. This anonymity contributes to a culture of impunity around sexual harassment of women. We believe that developing a nuanced understanding of why sexual harassment has increased during the recent political upheaval in Cairo is essential to preventing a further rise in this type of crime in Egypt and all over the world.
Appendix I: Timeline of Events in Egypt: January 2011 – August 2013
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 Ibid, 321.
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 Ibid, 79.
 Ibid, 79.
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