The Place Women Go to Get Raped
Is Systematic Sexual Assault a Political Tactic in Tahrir Square?
All Photos By: David Degner, Just off Tahrir Square, Mohammed Mahmoud Street is where Yasmine El Baramawy was beaten and raped.
I t was almost 11 PM on Friday, November 23, 2012, when from the window of her apartment in downtown Cairo, not far from Tahrir Square, Ghada heard a crowd screaming, “She has a bomb strapped to her stomach!” Ghada (who wishes to be known only by her first name) immediately thought of her children who were outside among those who had gathered. She ran to the balcony to search for them, but her terror shifted into action when she saw a naked woman pinned against the hood of a car, with a circle of men around her. Ghada grabbed her husband and some clothes for the stranger, and they sprinted downstairs to rescue her. They pushed through the crowd and into the circle, pulling the girl to safety.
Earlier that afternoon, Yasmine El Baramawy and her friend Soha (a pseudonym chosen to protect her identity) had made their way to Tahrir Square after hearing about the clashes between anti-Morsi activists and government-backed security forces. Protests against the post-Arab Spring constitution had started in Tahrir Square two days before. Yasmine and Soha hadn’t planned to explicitly join in; they just wanted to watch from a few feet away as protesters cheered against President Morsi.
In the fall of 2012, five months after becoming Egypt’s first-ever democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi signed a “constitutional” decree that gave him unlimited authority: he simultaneously appointed himself the chief of police, the chief of the military, and the head of Congress, giving himself the power to appoint or dismiss anyone within the government at only his discretion. He was, in the plainest terms, mad with power when many felt he had run on a platform that styled himself as the antithesis of Hosni Mubarak. Backed by the Muslim Brotherhood, Morsi was supposed to improve Egypt’s economic well-being and restore political control to the people. Egyptians were angry. Yasmine and Soha were angry.
At approximately 6 PM, the two women arrived at the edge of the square, the intersection at Al Kasr Al Aini Street at 6 PM, right as the sun was setting. They had yet to reach the demonstrations in the distance, and the square was relatively calm where they stood; Yasmine’s instincts immediately filled her with an urge to flee. She had witnessed mobs of protesters before, but something was off this time. Five minutes hadn’t passed before the girls decided to leave. When they turned to go, they saw a group of men running. The girls froze.
Yasmine, 30, stands in Tahrir Square in June, just before former President Morsi was ousted by the military.
Too late, the young women realized: the crowd of young Egyptian men were running toward them. They stopped within inches of the women’s faces, so close that Yasmine and Soha could smell the kebab on their breath. The men began ripping off Soha and Yasmine’s clothes, leaving them exposed.
Just then the square was tear-gassed, and the attackers scattered. Yasmine fell to the ground. Soha ran for help, returning with Sherif, a friend she had spotted among the protesters. Before they could pull Yasmine to her feet and leave, the tear gas evaporated and the mob returned. Sherif was strangled and tossed aside. Then, the thugs split up: half of them encircled Yasmine; the other half closed around Soha. That was the last time they saw each other that night.
Yasmine’s circle started to move away from the square, toward Mohammed Mahmoud Street, a dark street lined with pro-revolutionary graffiti. Yasmine felt fingers and knives penetrate her vagina, machetes slice her skin, but also heard shouts of “We’re going to help her!” She couldn’t differentiate between the voices of those trying to rescue her and her assailants. Even if her own brother had reached down his hand and told her to take his palm, she wouldn’t have been able to identify him.
Dragging her through the dirt, garbage, and sharp, broken sidewalks of Mohammed Mahmoud Street, they pulled and pawed at every part of her body—her limbs, her hair, her breasts. But Yasmine fought back, remaining close to the ground, crawling through sewage runoff as the circle of men pushed her further away from the square.
She was barely able to breathe, but when the attackers tugged at her pants, she kicked them. When one of her attackers tongued her, she bit down as hard as she could until she felt his blood gush. When they pinned her against the wall of an apartment building, she wailed for the doorman to let her in; instead, he stared blankly, not even turning his head. She noticed a crowd above her, sitting on building ledges and pointing. Could they hear her scream? Could they tell what was going on? Why did no one pull her to safety? she wondered as they dragged her through a mosque and finally into an alley.
The first time the circle parted was when a car pulled up, running over Yasmine’s hair. They attempted to pull Yasmine inside the car, but she resisted. Virtually paralyzed on the hood of the 1970s white Skoda, she could still hear her rapists screaming false accusations against her: “She’s got a bomb strapped to her! She’s going to blow us up!”
On November 30, protestors and activists gather around a sexual-assault watchtower
en want an untouched, good Egyptian girl,” my mother explained to me when I was barely a teenager. Of course, she waited till my father was out of earshot. My mother was that “good Egyptian girl,” a virgin bride wed to a man who swore to provide for her, protect their family, and preserve tradition. She wanted the same for me, and when we moved to the US, she feared that I would lose those Egyptian values. “If a man doesn’t see the blood from your hymen on your wedding night, it’s aar (shame) on you and a fadiha (public embarrassment) for the family.”
My mother’s logic is not a religious thing for Egyptian Muslims; my family is Coptic Christian. It’s cultural conditioning, available in movies and temsiliat (TV series) that tell plenty of stories about the good Egyptian girl: She is an excellent cook; if you come to visit, she will welcome you with a heaping pot of meat and vegetables. She is obedient; if her brother is thirsty, she will fetch him some water. She is innocent; she desires marriage but not sex.
When it’s time for her to get married, her family will usher in a variety of suitors to meet her. During that time, her only role will be to appear desirable, but above all demure, serving the suitor with tea. Her smile will be wide, her laughter hushed. When a suitor decides to ask her father for her hand in marriage, she will answer shyly, “Ilit shoofoo ya, Baba,” or “Whatever you see, Dad.” She will only leave her parents’ home on leilat al-dokhla, or the night of consummation—her wedding night.
An Egyptian bride’s wedding-night blood represents more than just the loss of her virginity; it represents that she’s preserved herself and—more importantly—her family has preserved her and thus the family’s honor according to the tenets of traditional Egyptian values. A good Egyptian girl would never protest against this.
Shereen El Feki, who studies and writes about sex in the Arab world, recently told Reason magazine about an eager young woman who researched sex because she so badly wanted to please her husband on their wedding night. “When she initiated some activity, her husband hauled out of bed and made her swear on a Qur’an that she has never had relations before marriage.”
While Egyptian women are conditioned to obey, men are conditioned to dominate and take whatever they want. Plenty of examples of how this works can be found in popular “romantic” movies. “No means yes” scenes are far too common in films from early Egyptian cinema, like Al Sharisa, as well as contemporary releases like Captain Hima and Omar we Selma. It usually goes like this: The man tries to kiss the woman, and she turns her head. He pulls her closer to him. She tries to run away. He finally grabs her and holds her tight until she gives in, seeming to enjoy the back and forth. While the US and other Western cultures might classify this scene as sexual harassment, Egyptian culture calls it “love.”
The acceptance and promotion of sexual harassment as normal, or even a deserved and acceptable punishment, makes Egypt one of the most potentially dangerous places for women in the world. Nearly 100 percent of women in Egypt have endured verbal or physical sexual harassment, according to a recent UN report. This attitude has spread like a virus through the political protests in Tahrir Square, a historic landmark that has become colloquially known all around Egypt as “the place where women who want to get raped go.”
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