The voice of the woman on the other end of the line has a piercing, frantic quality to it. She sounds desperate. “Just wait there,” Sammy, an Egyptian-German journalist covering events in Cairo says. “Five minutes, just five minutes. I’ll be right there.”
Pocketing his cellphone, Sammy quickens his pace. “This is a difficult time for women in Cairo,” he says. “My cousin is alone on the street. She is frightened.”
Tahrir Square disappears behind us in a bend in the road. For the past two years, it has been the focal point of protests that have swept Egypt down a twisting and sometimes sordid path. In January 2011, Egyptians of all political and religious stripes came together in Tahrir and, in a single, resounding voice, ejected Hosni Mubarak from power. In July this year, millions of Egyptians converged there to celebrate the military coup that brought down the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood government.
Ominously, however, Tahrir Square has also become the site of some of the worst sexual violence Egypt has ever seen. Dozens, perhaps hundreds of women, have been brutally assaulted and raped there, according to Egyptian human rights activists.
On July 3 alone, while Egyptians turned the square into an all-night dance party in the wake of the Muslim Brotherhood’s fall, journalists and activists recorded more than 80 vicious attacks on female protesters. The tactics of the attackers had been seen in earlier demonstrations: Dozens of men surround a woman, cutting her off from her friends and tearing off her clothes. Bystanders would watch or record the attack on their mobile phones while, according to some of the women who described their ordeals to the media, police would sit idly by.
The frenzy would escalate, according to the women who were subjected to such attacks. More men would join the mob. The woman would be violated in multiple ways: with objects, fingers and, in one unimaginable case, a knife. Some were thrown to the ground and raped.
The sheer horror of those events has paralyzed many Egyptian women. “But the attacks in Tahrir are a symptom of a larger issue,” says Rebecca Chiao, co-founder and director of Harassmap.org, an organization and online tool set up in the wake of the assaults during the 2011 demonstrations. “There’s proof that these mob attacks were organized. But sexual violence has been on the rise in Egypt for years.”
For a woman walking Cairo’s streets, life has become a nightmare. Indeed, a survey conducted by the United Nations and published in April this year reported a shocking 99.3 per cent of women admitting they had been sexually harassed, with 91.5 per cent saying they had been groped.
“Twenty years ago, harassing a woman on the streets was still taboo in Egypt,” says Chiao. “Men were punished for it. People would intervene. For some reason, that has changed.”
Harassment has become acceptable in Egyptian society, Chiao says. “And we’re trying to figure out why.”
Using some of its funding from the Ottawa-based International Development Research Centre (IDRC), her group is undertaking the first detailed study on the factors behind the change in social perceptions of harassment. “We’ve already seen some interesting results,” she says. “Preliminary data show, for example, that men are targeting conservatively dressed women because they are less likely to resist. This challenges the religious conservatives’ argument that women are somehow to blame for dressing immodestly or for being in public, an argument the Muslim Brotherhood leadership has used to explain the attacks in Tahrir.”
Women who take their cases to the police are often ridiculed or, in some cases, assaulted by the police themselves. In virtually every case, Chiao adds, the women are the ones blamed for provoking the attacks. Chiao says Harassmap is working toward “putting the shame back into sexual harassment.” Their website encourages people to report harassment as it is happening, via SMS, Twitter, Facebook posts and emails. Using that data, they map incidents on an interactive graphic, providing Egyptians with information on where and when attacks have happened. “These technologies are a powerful new tool for data collection,” says Khaled Fourati, a senior program officer with IDRC based in Cairo.
Already, mobile phones are providing some relief for women like Sammy’s cousin. When we arrive in Talaat Harb, she is sheltered under a storefront awning. “I just need to go that way,” she says, pointing kitty-corner across the square. “Not far, maybe 500 m, but every time I try, I get harassed by men.”
The terror of being attacked remains very real for Egyptian women. But if there is any silver lining to the horrors women have faced during Egypt’s protests, it is this: The lines are being drawn.