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February 12, 2013

Rise in Egypt Sex Attacks Prompts Protests

by Elizabeth Arrott

Demonstrations are planned outside Egyptian embassies worldwide Tuesday to protest the recent spike in sexual violence against women in Egypt.

Women have been central to Egypt's revolution, from the uprising two years ago through protests against current President Mohamed Morsi.

They have suffered the dangers of the front lines, but in recent weeks, a growing threat has emerged.

Mob attacks

Mob sexual violence against female protesters skyrocketed in the past month, with at least 19 attacks reported on Cairo's Tahrir Square in one day alone.

Amateur videos and witness accounts describe how women in the crowd are singled out and encircled by a group of men. The men rip off the women's clothes and violate them with hands, sticks, and in at least one case, a blade.

As the attack unfolds, some men pretend to come to the rescue only to join in the assault. Others brandish knives to keep the real rescuers at bay.

Women have rallied in protest, demanding the president investigate and bring those responsible to justice.

Amnesty International has also called on Morsi to act.

The human rights group has long urged Egyptian leaders to address the issue of violence against women in the country, where many women report frequent harassment just going about their lives.  

"When I go in the street and find something hit me or touch my body, what are they thinking about? How could they do that?" asked a female university student.

Scare tactics

The mob attacks of Tahrir have sparked even darker questions and accusations that the violence is not just gender-based, but political.

Nehad Abu al-Komsan, director of the Egyptian Center for Women's Rights, said the attacks are organized as a way to empty the squares and scare the opposition. 

She calls them "messages to society so that they are scared to express their opinion."

Activists point out there have been no reports of mob attacks at pro-government rallies. 

Political analyst Said Sadek says the practice goes back years.

"This is a culture that thinks that humiliating people sexually will deter them from being active politically," he said. "So this is what is being done, and nobody gets arrested despite the fact that you have videotapes of the people who did it."

Demand for action

While a culture of impunity is not new, the spike in attacks has raised pressure on Morsi and other Islamist leaders to clearly denounce the violence and work to prevent it.

"The people will be pushing for laws to be applied, for laws to be in the parliament to stop these kinds of actions whether sexual harassment, sexual violence or any kind of violence taking place," said Farah Shash, a psychologist who works at the Nadeem Center for Victims of Violence.

An indication of how hard that drive will be came Monday, when Islamist members of Egypt's only legislative branch, the Shura council, blamed the victims for the crime, saying the women had put themselves in danger by going to the protests.

In the meantime, and despite the dangers, many Egyptian women say they remain determined to make their voices heard and will use protests outside Egyptian embassies worldwide to vent their anger.