Protesters gather outside the Cairo Opera House
Whilst thousands of people gathered in Tahrir Square to celebrate the election and inauguration of new President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi earlier this month, numerous women fell victim to violent attacks and gang rapes – something which has become tragically commonplace in Egypt over the past three years.
One victim, a 19-year-old girl, was watched naked and covered in blood on YouTube by 100,000 people, before the video of her ordeal was removed. “It was 5AM as I watched that dreadful video and read about the assaults that occurred in Tahrir the night before,” organiser of the Walk Like an Egyptian Woman rally, Dena El-Shabba, said. “I was furious," the 20-year-old university student continued. "Those atrocities effect the whole of society and that’s why, inspired by the protests organised in India, I decided to organise a rally myself.”
In less than a week 13,000 people signed up to the Walk Like an Egyptian Woman event page on facebook. When the day of the rally came, on the 14th of June, just 300 or so men and women, including journalists, showed up at the Cairo Opera House. The police monitored the protesters, who were holding anti-sexual harassment banners with feminist slogans. Ministry of Interior consent for demos has been mandatory since last November.
In April 2013, a UN report suggested that 99.3 percent of women and girls are subjected to sexual harassment in Egypt. Two months later, Human Rights Watch reported that 91 women had been raped or sexually assaulted in Tahrir Square during anti-Morsi protests. In March of this year, a Cairo University female student was sexually attacked by tens of her fellow students, allegedly because of her outfit: black trousers and a pink sweater.
Given all of that, you may be surprised to know that it took until the 5th of June for Egypt to criminalise sexual harassment. Aggressors can now be sentenced to a minimum six-month jail term and a fine worth 3,000EGP – with increased penalties for employers and repeat offenders.
“We ask for this law to be enforced on the spot,” said Ashnadelle Hilmy, a pro-Sisi supporter wearing sunglasses, a tight black dress and a pinned Egyptian flag cockade in her hair. As if to show the public they’re taking the new law seriously, the officers securing the event arrested a taxi driver, accused of verbally harassing a girl handing out flyers for the campaign.
The Ministry of Interior has arrested seven men and opened an investigation into three others, for their responsibility into June’s attacks in Tahrir but, as Shabba and many others pointed out, “these people will never be given a punishment proportional to their crimes as long as Article 267 of the Penal Code, concerning rape, doesn’t change.”
The law refers to a rapist as, “whosoever has sexual intercourse with a female without her consent,” but it doesn't cover penetration short of full sex or with things that aren't body parts. Most of the victims of the recent sexual attacks had their bodies violated by hands and sharp blades – so roughly that doctors had to stitch up the deep wounds in their genitals. The perpetrators won’t be prosecuted for rape, but for harassment.
19 year-old Sarah Abdelnour
The new harassment law is better than nothing, but people are sceptical. “The law is only a short-term solution adopted by a government which is scared by the reaction of its own people,” 19-year-old Sarah Abdelnour said, with blood-like red paint on her face.
“The state is exploiting the situation,” 34-year-old Akram Ismail from Bread and Freedom Movement added. “For three years women have been attacked in public spaces and no one, except independent organisations like Basma, Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment or Tahrir Bodyguard, said or did anything to help them. It’s ridiculous that all at a sudden they want to appear as the fathers of the nation.”
The government has ignored the pleas from campaigning organisations against sexual harassment and, even now prefers to blame "foreign entities" – such as the banned Muslim Brotherhood – rather than admitting that Eygpt has a problem. A social issue has been turned into a political one.
Meanwhile, the Ministry of Interior and the police have been an integral part of the problem. They have been involved in sexual abuses since before the Arab Spring. In 2005, women were singled out and groped as protesters were attacked on the staircase of the Journalists’ Syndicate. In 2007 Emad el-Kebaar was sodomised by two police officers.In 2011 a dozen women were forced to undertake "virginity tests" as a form of torture in Tahrir by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, headed by no less than General – now President – Sisi.
At Saturday's event, the general consensus seemed to be that you can’t fight an endemic problem like sexual harassment in Egypt by imposing new laws while the general culture is still permissive of rape, but that those laws are nevertheless important.
“Sending a clear and strong message from Cairo in the aftermath of the violent attacks in Tahrir is important to spreading awareness throughout small villages and towns across the country,” Ismail stressed, “but it’s not enough. We need a comprehensive and coordinated approach, which includes an effective legislation, national protocols and strategies for all relevant ministries, and consultation with Egyptian women’s rights groups and survivors.”