The Place Women Go to Get Raped
Is Systematic Sexual Assault a Political Tactic in Tahrir Square?
Aug 13 2013
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.”
Two months after Yasmine's attack, Mohamed El-Khateeb, along with other OpAntiSH volunteers, returned to fight rapists around Tahrir Square.
Yasmine didn’t return home after Ghada and her husband pulled her to safety. Instead she began staying with a friend who had already heard about what had happened through other friends. But Yasmine was stunned into silence. She couldn’t even cry until she heard Soha’s voice the next day.
During the week she stayed silent about her attack, she began to wonder: Is this what it meant to be a modern Egyptian woman? She thought that the stray dogs starved and kicked and shot in the streets of Egypt are treated better than the Egyptian women who stood up to their government and demanded change in Tahrir Square. At that point, Yasmine told me, she doesn’t even want to be associated with her country. She wanted to quit the fight, leave the country, maybe start a new story someplace else, toss the burden of shame. She wanted to denounce her citizenship.
Soha’s story traces the same timeline, pattern, and events as Yasmine’s: Men enclosed a circle around her, ripped her clothes, beat her, dragged her through the streets, while penetrating her with their fingers and knives. She escaped after she begged one of her attackers for mercy, pleading to him that she was a mother who wanted nothing more than to see her children again. To this day, she remains anonymous and hasn’t filed any charges. She views it this way: the police couldn’t save her, the law doesn’t protect her, and society blames her for her own attack; she must remain quiet.
“Reporting harassment in the police is problematic, and although, we have laws against sexual harassment, they’re not enforced,” said Dina Samir, a former spokesperson for HarassMap, a NGO founded in December 2010 that has taken off since the Arab Spring. “According to one of the laws, you have to have someone who witnessed the situation. Sometimes that’s impossible, if someone grabs you or touches [you] and just runs, how can you find them? You can be in an empty street where nobody saw [the harassment].” One of HarassMap’s main tactics to thwart this type of behavior is an online reporting system for victims that includes a user-generated map of where these incidences occur. All of this is to help end the stereotype that unwanted advances are actually wanted, or even deserved, and to quash the taboo of talking about all forms of sexual harassment.
Soha’s point of view is completely understandable: Why would she choose to relive those memories when the overwhelming odds are she’ll lose the fight?
In Egypt, sexual harassment cases are given little to no attention. In 2009, only 88 cases of rape were reported to the Egyptian police; even if those cases get prosecuted, the courts are magnificently inefficient. Bribery and corruption are the heartbeat of the Egyptian courts. Pumping cash to officials isn’t only common, it’s the only way of conducting any real business. Police officers won’t listen or talk to anyone—victims or lawyers—without a few Egyptian pounds in their hands. A lawyer defending a harasser unrelated to the Tahrir Square rapes, who spoke to me on the basis of anonymity, said, “The [victim] asked for 30,000 EGP in order to drop the case. I laughed in her face then went and paid the two witnesses 1,000 EGP each to change their testimony. I’ll win the case and my guy will walk. That’s Egypt.”
After I met with Yasmine, I retold her story to some of my family members in Egypt, and one responded, “Her story isn’t believable. Why wouldn’t she file a police report to at the very least prove to her husband she was attacked when he discovers she isn’t a virgin?” Even Ghada’s husband, who witnessed Yasmine’s brutal attack and rescued her out of the hands of her rapists, questioned the authenticity of Yasmine’s story. When Ghada was helping Yasmine get into a galabeya, a traditional long cloak, he stood in disgust, shouting, “What did you do to these men? Where do you know them from?”
Yasmine’s original plan was to stay silent, but a week after her attack, she heard about six assaults identical to hers that took place in Tahrir Square on the night she was accosted: all occurred between 6 PM and 11 PM; a circle of 20- to 30-year-old men surrounded the victims, ripped their clothes off, beat them, and penetrated their vaginas with knives. According to Yasmine, around the same time, the prominent Salafi preacher and television personality Abdullah Badr—a jailed Islamist famously arrested in May 2013 after libelously accusing an actress of “adultery”—broadcasted on his television show that at least 30 girls so far had been sexually assaulted in Tahrir. He said they were “whores” who purposefully went to Tahrir to get gang-raped.
Yasmine, on the other hand, told me she believes that the Muslim Brotherhood has been orchestrating these attacks, paying off thugs to assault anti-Morsi protesters and discourage further change in Egypt. Of course, verifying such a claim can be difficult. Egypt runs on bribes as much as it does on conspiracy theories, and it’s not uncommon to hear lines like “No, it’s really the activists,” “Those guys look like the Black Bloc,” or “Mubarak paid thugs to do this, so he could get his own revenge on the revolution” if talk turns to the protest rapes. “Witnesses” can be conjured up at a moment’s notice, telling whoever is asking questions anything he or she wants to hear if the price is right. Earlier this year, when a VICE production crew was shooting a documentary in Egypt, they interviewed a group of men who claimed they had been paid off by the Muslim Brotherhood to carry out the gang rapes. Afterward they demanded 500 EGP, about $70. (The crew paid but discarded the interview.) If Yasmine is correct, it seems the plan is to transform female activists into victims, to force them to swallow their hope while spitting back shame into their faces. If this is the case, it would also ensure that their male activist counterparts and family members are wounded with guilt, because they, like Soha’s friend, Sherif, were unable to protect their fellow activists—a political failing as well as a strike against the ideal of the dominant Egyptian male. Fathers, brothers, and entire families would be burdened with the embarrassment of a fadiha, and their fear of public shame would keep the victims silent, their cause muted. Even if any of the victims were allowed to tell their stories, the quick spin of “she wanted to get raped, so she went to Tahrir Square” would most likely be the accepted cultural narrative.
It almost sounds too elaborate and fantastical a plan—a typical Egyptian conspiracy. But, according to Yasmine, this is exactly what has happened to her. When she first wanted to tell her story, colleagues—activist friends, political figures, and even journalists—refused to listen. “We can’t prove any of this,” they told her. “We will ruin the reputation of Tahrir Square and the reputation of the revolution.”
Instead of hiding, Yasmine felt obligated to warn women who planned to protest in Tahrir. “If I had known, I would’ve been more cautious, I would’ve worn multiple layers so I wouldn’t be exposed so quickly, I would’ve gone with more male friends.” One week later, on December 30, she posted an (at the time) anonymous, detailed recollection on Facebook of her attack. Her post acted as a tipping point that inspired the formation of Operation Anti-Sexual Assault, or OpAntiSH, the volunteer-based group, modeled on the NGOs HarassMap and Tahrir Bodyguard. Like those organizations, OpAntiSH is comprised of ordinary citizens who’ve volunteered to take matters into their own hands because they believe the type of gang assaults to which Yasmine and Soha fell victim are being ignored by the government and local law enforcement. Given the risk, it’s a surprise that women make up half the group.
Mohamed believes the mob assaults are premeditated because assailants singled him out whenever he tried to intervene.
OpAntiSH responded to Tahrir Square’s organized gang-rape crisis with a plan that kicked off on January 25, 2013, the two-year anniversary of the Arab Spring, when thousands were expected to protest President Morsi’s increasingly far-reaching power grab. During the rally, an OpAntiSH control group stayed at an activist’s apartment located atop of a building on the tip of the square that served as a safe house. Yasmine was among them. The volunteers split into two groups: “the attack group,” volunteers who would physically intervene if needed and attempt to break up and distract the circles of thugs; the other half served as the “safety group” who would sneak in to extract the victim. The 19 cases of simultaneous gang rape that took place that night far exceeded their expectations and planning.
The volunteers arrived at Tahrir around 6 PM to three simultaneous cases of gang assaults in-progress. Overwhelmed and distraught, the volunteers split up. One of them, Mohamed El-Khateeb—a soft-spoken, even-toned 24-year-old—anchored himself atop a ventilator to get a better view of the situation below and noticed a foreign woman encircled by a large group of men. He felt he had to do something to keep her from drifting further into the crowd. Against all the training he received—to never intervene alone—he jumped from his perch and crashed into the center of the mob. He knew that the woman being attacked wouldn’t be able to differentiate him from those pursuing her, but he was determined to help anyway, pushing men aside and pulling her clear of the mob.
Mohamed jumped back on his makeshift watchtower to locate his colleagues. He quickly realized he was alone, so he phoned the control group, who advised him to run to one of the buildings near Talat Haarb Street. He didn’t need an address. As soon as he got to the street, he quickly spotted the mob. The OpAntiSH volunteers were trying to pull another victim inside the building. Mohamed squeezed his way through to the horde, which per the usual pattern was screaming things like “I’m trying to help her,” or “This is my sister.” Again, he could only see the victim’s head and feared for what might be happening to her body. The mob immediately realized Mohamed wasn’t one of them and began to attack him, grabbing his thighs, punching him with the butt of a knife, and even biting his chest—all of which has only convinced Mohamed further that the assaults were premeditated.
At that moment, someone in the square set off a homemade flare. Everyone dropped to the ground, while Mohamed and the rest of the volunteers grabbed the victim, shut the iron gate to the building, and took refuge inside. The mob, however, was relentless. They tugged at the iron gate, trying to break it, screaming, “We want the girls inside! We want the girls inside!” It took 30 minutes of exhausting struggle before the mob gave up and left.
Mohamed fought to save one more victim that night, a woman who was eventually taken by ambulance to Kasr Al Aini Hospital around midnight. As she was bleeding to death, having been repeatedly vaginally penetrated with a knife, the government-run hospital turned her away. Egyptian law requires the hospital to file a forensic report after a crime, and the volunteers were told a forensic scientist wouldn’t be available until 6 PM the following day. Heliopolis Hospital, a privately run facility, admitted her only after the OpAntiSH volunteers begged the staff to care for the dying victim.
Mohamed viewed the January 25 operation as equal parts success and failure. OpAntiSH volunteers were able to save some women from the mob assaults, and intervene in 15 out of the total 19 cases that were reported that night, even though it’s likely that dozens of similar incidents went unreported. These operations were the impetus for Yasmine to go public with her story. Volunteer groups couldn’t take on this fight alone. Within a few days, on February 1, 2013, she and another victim, journalist Hania Moheeb, recounted their nearly identical stories on Al Nahar, an Egyptian TV channel.
After Yasmine’s TV appearance, countless lawyers offered to represent her, but the police claim to have no leads on the case—despite her having acquired the plate numbers from the 70s Skoda that ran over her hair, evidence left on the clothes she was wearing that night, and YouTube videos of similar attacks shot by eye-witnesses. (According to a private investigator she hired following the incident, the car belonged to a member of Morsi’s majority political party.)
Tahrir Square on January 28, 2011
Still, Yasmine continues her fight. On June 30, the one-year anniversary of Morsi’s election when activists and citizens marched to demand the removal and impeachment of the now ex-president, facing the potential of sexual assault again, she stood between the 33 million protesters who made 93-degree heat feel like 140, walked for hours, and chanted “Erhal!”—“Leave!”—to Morsi, who was ousted by the military on July 3. Yasmin refused to carry a weapon but surrounded herself with six male friends for safety. In the end she was unharmed, but HarassMap and OpAntiSH reported 46 different cases of sexual assault in Tahrir Square on June 30 alone. Even as Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood fell from power, the number of mob sexual assaults rose to 169 cases by July 5, with as many as 80 throughout the night of July 4.
If the Muslim Brotherhood indeed is coordinating these attacks, the fight may not be over. As of this writing, blood continues to stain Egypt’s streets as the Brotherhood faces off with the Egyptian military in an attempt to regain their former power. As one of the most organized groups in Egypt, the Brotherhood, especially if they join forces with the Salafi Islamists, may still be capable of once again gaining control of the government when a fair and free election eventually takes place.
As the Egyptians walk the precarious path to stability, it’s apparent that the women of Egypt must step forward and join the fight. “The solution isn’t less women in Tahrir Square,” Mohamed told me. “This is planned, so they [the organizers] have a set number of men coming with the intention to single out the girls and rape them. If ten men came and only found one girl, it would be easy for them to attack her. If 20 girls showed up, [the rapists] would be outnumbered, and we could easily break up any attack.”
Even after this second revolution, the role of Egypt’s women may not be changing fast enough to bring them justice.
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