Gehad Hussein sees how Egyptian women are harassed and how they fight back
The scene is one of some 100 angry women waving knives and other weapons, chanting: “If you touch me, I will cut off your hand — or your genitals.” What might seem barbaric to many people across the world turns out to be a legitimate act of reason at times when violence against women is practised openly and publicly. Most of these women have experienced sexual harassment on the streets in Egypt, their home country in which they should feel safe and protected. Among them is Yasmine Al-Baramawi, a musician who experienced mass sexual harassment for 70 whole minutes, very close to the place that is globally admired for its peacefulness and purity — Tahrir Square.
On 23 November 2012, Al-Baramawi joined hundreds of thousands of protesters to voice discontent over President Mohamed Morsi’s constitutional declaration. “I’m not a political activist, but I join all protests in order to quantify the number of demonstrators and contribute to the mass.” Little did Al-Baramawi know that she would be one of the first victims of a phenomenon that has been happening frequently ever since. To be exact, there are 40 registered and documented cases of frightfully similar incidents.
“There were clashes at Qasr Al-Aini Street, so I went with a friend of mine there to chant, but we felt that the vibe itself was very negative. We tried to go back to Tahrir when we found a large herd of men running towards us, separating me and my friend, tearing our clothes off. My pants were cut off with knives, which also scarred my legs.” The perpetrators had their hands everywhere and pulled Al-Baramawi from her hair and all her limbs. Remarkably, the attackers themselves pretended to be helping the victim while they were sexually harassing her.
“I sat myself on the ground, in sewage water, because I noticed that this position made me more in control of the situation. I couldn’t breathe while lying on the ground and was trampled over, but to me, this was the better option I had.” Al-Baramawi was dragged through a mosque, and at some point, a car almost drove over her head. “I remember lying down in a place lit by fluorescent lamps. Then a car came out of nowhere, drove over my hair and almost went over my face as well, but stopped in the last second. They tried pulling me into the car, but I resisted, and in the end, they just lay me — naked — on the hood and drove me in this position all the way to Abdine.”
At this point, activists had started tweeting and spreading the story, calling for help and trying to find Al-Baramawi. One managed to go after the car and asked them where they were taking her. The answer: “We’re going to rape her.” Luckily, a group of people got Al-Baramawi out of the clustre and took her to a safe place.
While society rarely sympathises with, or supports victims of sexual harassment, Al-Baramawi was one of the few who found support. “Today, I am the same person I was, I just got older. The common reaction of my female friends and family members was that they got scared, whereas the men felt incompetent and helpless, but no one ever blamed me for what happened.”
The problem apparently lies with education and lack of awareness. “Even religious institutions and clerics blame women for what is happening to them, which is not what any religion says. In Islam, for instance, the man is not allowed to touch a woman that is not his wife, no matter what she is wearing. But unfortunately, this is not what our clerics preach.”
But is the trigger of such crimes solely sexual deprivation or are there other factors involved? “I do not believe that these incidents have a purely sexual background,” Al-Baramawi says. “Politics use sexual deprivation in society in order to scare people. Not only are women attacked, but whole families. The ones in power do not want citizens to protest and fill the squares, so they use this type of crime to stop it or at least reduce the numbers. Everyone will be sitting home opposing the political system but will not have the courage to take it to the streets.”
Engi Ghozlan, a member of the action group Operation Anti-Sexual-Harassment and co-founder of the harassment-tracing website Harassmap, agrees with Al-Baramawi’s point and takes it even one step further: “There is a rise in sexual violence in Egypt and it is expected to continue. The more people are speaking up about it, the more we expect awareness about the problem and a change on how violence against women is viewed. The regime is trying to make this topic seem unimportant because otherwise, the country would have to abide by the international declarations that it signed, like the Convention on Elimination of Violence against Women of the United Nations. These say that the country is responsible for preventing all crime and violence directed at women and children.
“Working on sexual harassment is very seasonal to the government. When an issue receives attention, they make a law, but we do not have a security apparatus that can implement it, nor a health sector that can deal with it. Every time they start from ground zero, without taking into account the opinion of civil society which has been working on this matter forever, and already has ideas and suggestions,” Ghozlan explains.
Even when the Shura Council held a meeting last month to discuss the matter, all it could come up with was to blame women for what had happened to them. “We had the opportunity to attend the meeting of the Shura Council, but we ended up not going, because we do not believe that they represent anyone — and that was a really good decision, because what happened was a disgrace. There is no way that a committee that claims to be working on human rights would say such a farce and expect people to respond,” Ghozlan added furiously.
The traumas of sexual harassment are unimaginable, but one sentence by Al-Baramawi sums up a big part of them: “Whenever I see the streets where I was sexually harassed on TV, I automatically get a hold of my pants, as if to make sure that they’re still there and that no one is around to rip them off.”