Women continue to protest in Tahrir Square, despite the prevalence of sexual violence. Photo: Kvinna till Kvinna/Saba Nowzari
Women continue to protest in Tahrir Square, despite the prevalence of sexual violence. Photo: Kvinna till Kvinna/Saba Nowzari

Violent attacks against Egyptian women

2013-02-14

At least 25 women were sexually assaulted or harassed during the Egyptian’s protests against the continuing injustice on the second anniversary of the revolution on January 25. The assaults are believed to be organized to prevent women from participating in the democratization process.
– Ironically enough, the revolution has led to a sharp cut-back of women’s rights in the country, says Saba Nowzari, the Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation’s field representative for Egypt.

Violent protests flared up in several Egyptian cities at the revolution’s two-year anniversary that ousted dictator Hosni Mubarak in 2011. About 50 people have died and at least 1300 people were injured. President Muhammad Morsi declared a 30-day state of emergency and imposed a dusk-to-dawn curfew in three cities, a ban which has mostly been ignored.

Women’s rights organizations in Egypt have reported sexual assaults and harassment of about 25 women in Tahrir Square and its vicinity only during the anniversary.

According to Saba Nowzari, many claim that the attacks against women are organized, even though it is yet unclear who lies behind the assaults.  The opposition party National Salvation Front (NSF) blames President Morsi according to the newspaper Ahram Online.

Several civil society groups tried to help the victims by patrolling on Tahrir Square. The volunteers encountered though different kinds of harassment themselves. A woman from Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment told the Guardian how she was surrounded by men who were touching and groping her while she was a part of a rescue team trying to help another woman.

Tahrir Bodyguard has now started to teach self-defense classes for women and on February 12 there will be a demonstration against women’s sexual harassment in front of Egyptian Embassies around the world. Women living outside the capital are in an even more difficult situation, as the organized women’s movement mainly works in Cairo. Their exposure to sexual violence remains thus undocumented.

Widespread frustration

The protests, which started on January 25, are mostly about frustration in wide parts of the Egyptian public. Continuing injustice, the dwindling economy and the police’s use of excessive violence against civilians, causing many casualties which nobody is hold accountable for, has led to strong dissatisfaction and massive protests, especially in Port Said, where the death toll was highest.
– There is an enormous frustration in the country about the lack of action against violence, says Saba Nowzari.

People are also upset about the Muslim Brotherhood’s power-amassment, which has become apparent in different ways. Liberal and secular politicians in the committee drafting the new constitution left the committee in protest against the Muslim Brotherhood’s overrepresentation and their refusal to take other group’s demands for freedom and more rights into consideration. Even though the people voted for the new constitution, it has rather led to more political instability in the country, according to Saba Nowzari.

The new constitution is not a benefit for Egyptian women. Already when the constitution draft was leaked at the end of 2012, Egyptian women’s organizations warned that an adoption of the new constitution could mean a change for the worse for women’s rights.

The constitution is now approved, in spite of deep disagreement, lowering minimum marriage age for girls to 14 and making it possible to sell girls for sex without getting punished. The constitution contains no article that mentions women’s rights, as the proposed section about gender equality has been omitted, which opens the door for women’s discrimination.

Deliberate discrimination

The new constitution makes it also more difficult for women to make a career in the political arena. At the eve of the revolution a female quota bill for parliament was passed. This bill has now been annulled, so there’s no demand for the parties anymore to include women in their lists. Egypt is already one of the countries with the lowest percentage of women in parliament. Women represented 1, 8 percent of the now dissolved parliament.
– There is a deliberate discrimination going on of women in politics and their possibility to participate in decision-making processes, says Saba Nowzari.

At the same time the women’s movement has never been that visible. Women’s organizations have never before been so good at getting their message out, and the situation of Egyptian women made a lot of headlines. Those groups who are fighting against sexual harassment are focusing now on opinion making and to get the government to act against the assaults.

Their work is aggravated by the lack of resources to coordinate their activities and to take care of all victims. Moreover, female activists encounter huge resistance. Threat and violence, often sexually tinged, is used to silence and scare women and to work against their political participation.

Text: Pavlina Ekdahl/Karin Råghall

Translation: Katharina Andersen