The mob attack on France 24 Correspondent Sonia Didri near Tahrir Square last Friday as she was reporting on the protests is both shocking and disturbing. It’s disturbing because the mob violence phenomenon appears to have become a trend in the “new” Egypt.
The assault on Didri is the latest in a wave of sexual assaults targeting female protesters and foreign women journalists in Egypt, post revolution. What makes the attacks so shocking is the unprecedented level of violence used against the women involved and the fact that all such assaults have taken place in broad public view.
CBS reporter Lara Logan was the first foreign journalist to suffer such an attack immediately after the January 2011 mass uprising that toppled President Hosni Mubarak. She was sexually assaulted by a mob of around 200 men near Tahrir Square on 11 February, 2011 – the day Mubarak stepped down – as tens of thousands of revellers celebrated in the square. Several foreign women journalists have since been subjected to similar attacks involving crowds of frenzied men – some of whom were armed with sticks and belts.
Sexual harassment has been common in Cairo but appears to have increased since the January 2011 Revolution. Some analysts say that the rise in such incidents is possibly due to the fact that more women are now coming forward to report them. In the freer post revolution atmosphere, harassment is no longer a taboo issue and is being openly discussed in the media. There’s a greater awareness among women and girls that they should no longer blame themselves.
According to Nehad Abu Komsan, a women’s rights advocate, girls and women experience harassment “whether or not they are covered up and harassment often occurs in broad daylight.” A 2008 study conducted by the Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights, which Abu Komsan chairs, has revealed that more than 80 per cent of the women surveyed had experienced harassment in some form or another.
“Mothers often advise their daughters not to walk alone at night and to dress modestly. We found out that the harassment occurs at any time of day – anywhere – regardless of whether the women are veiled or not,” Abu Komsan said, adding that “the findings of the report have shattered the myth that harassment occurs only in dark alleys.”
Women who use public transport are the most vulnerable, according to Abu Komsan. “Women using public transport to get to work everyday are seen by some men as competitors for the limited number of jobs that are available. The men – especially unemployed youth – vent their anger and frustration at the women.”
Abu Komsan believes that street harassment is symptomatic of the high unemployment and the inability of many men to fulfil their traditional role within the family as providers. “Targeting women who are weaker than themselves gives the harasser a sense of empowerment,” she said.
Inability to afford the cost of marriage has also led to frustration among young people living in a conservative Egyptian society, where sex out of wedlock is frowned upon.
A 2006 mob attack on girls celebrating the Eid holiday shocked the country. The girls were sexually assaulted outside a movie theatre in downtown Cairo and had their clothes torn off. A year earlier, Egyptian women journalists covering a protest in Cairo were sexually molested by state security officers.
Several journalists have since reported being “roughed up” by police and security forces while trying to tell the story. While some accuse state security officials of using violence to intimidate journalists (especially women journalists), others believe the assaults are carried out by security agents “to tarnish the image of the Tahrir protesters.”
In other incidents of sexual violence against women since the January 2011 Revolution, 17 female protesters were forced by a military doctor to undergo “virginity tests” after they were arrested near Tahrir Square on 9 March, 2011.
One of the protesters – Samira Ibrahim – later decided to speak out and filed a lawsuit against the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. She told me it was an attempt by the SCAF to humiliate women who had participated in the Tahrir protests. In December 2011, a video clip of a young female protester who had been stripped down to her bra and was cruelly beaten and dragged about by military soldiers went viral on the internet, sparking a public outcry.
A series of public service announcements broadcast on Egyptian TV channels earlier this year warning locals against talking to foreigners “lest they be spying for foreign countries” have further fuelled hostility towards foreigners. Several journalists have been attacked by protesters in Tahrir Square after they were suspected of being foreign agents.
Female protesters demanding greater rights for women on 8 March, 2011, and others protesting against sexual harassment in June 2012 also came under attack by mobs who yelled at them to “Go home.” Activist Azza Kamel believes the attacks were aimed at keeping women away from Tahrir.”
Meanwhile, harassment often goes unreported in Egypt mainly because of women’s fear of being stigmatised. Moreover, women who have filed complaints against their harassers at police stations have said the complaints were not taken seriously and in most cases the culprits have not faced punishment.
“Attitudes of both men and women towards sexual harassment need to change. Society must adopt a zero-tolerance policy towards harassment,” said Ziad El Rifai, Egypt’s UNFPA Country Representative.” While legislation criminalising harassment is required, what is more important is a public campaign to educate Egyptians and spread the message that such behaviour is unacceptable,” he added.