All Egyptian women are survivors of sexual violence

All Egyptian women are survivors of sexual violence
Blog: A viral hashtag has reopened discussion about Egypt's sexual harassment epidemic - but why is it happening and how did it start?
6 min read
05 Apr, 2017
Sexual violence is a tool used by the state for political repression [Getty Images]

Egyptian women have been sharing their experiences of sexual harassment and assault using the hashtag ‫#‏اول_محاولة_تحرش_كان_عمري‬  - which translates as: "The first time I was sexually harassed, my age was..."

The hashtag went viral after a 19-year-old woman was sexually assaulted by a mob as she left a wedding in Zagazig, a city north of the Egyptian capital, last Thursday.

It was first created, however, after a woman was sexually assaulted on
Cairo University's campus in March 2014.

Thursday's attack was caught on
video, but the one detail that was highlighted by Egyptian media was not the violence of the attackers - but the length of the victim’s dress.

Victim-blaming is a common attitude towards female survivors of sexual assault everywhere in the world. But the stories being shared this week expose just how prevalent victim-blaming is in Egypt. Many survivors told stories of how they were blamed for indirectly "inviting unwelcome attention".

"To those who argue that Egyptian men in the past [during the 1950s and 1960s] saw women in miniskirts all the time and did not sexually harass them, they were not real men,”
proclaimed a televangelist two weeks before the Zagazig assault.

In their attempt to save the young woman, the police fired several shots in the air to disperse the mob. Four men were arrested and an investigation is ongoing.

What if the victim had not been wearing a short skirt? What if she was not out late? What if she was not "sending mixed signals" or any signals at all? What if she was a little girl? A baby, perhaps?

A week earlier, in Dakahlia - east of Zagazig - a 20-month-old baby girl was raped by a 35-year-old kidnapper.

The rapist confessed to the crime in detail in open court.

The attack came as a shock to Egyptians everywhere; some questioned the sanity of the alleged attacker while most called for his immediate execution.

In an unprecedentedly speedy trial - even by Egyptian standards - the judge
spoke softly to the accused, often calling him "son". The judge's often tender tone was a stark departure from society's reaction to the attack.

The universal condemnation seemed to be an indication that a society in which
99.3 percent of women have experienced some form of sexual harassment or assault still has some limits on forms of sexual violence it cannot normalise.

Dot Msr,
an online newspaper, meanwhile, published an interview with the infant's doctor, who assured concerned readers that her hymen would heal by the time she reached adolescence.

The muted backlash over that interview mirrored a common attitude towards virginity in Egypt. For decades, Egyptian society and culture has dictated that virginity is crucial to women. In 2012, Egyptians met their future president for the first time when Sisi, then a member of the country's governing military council, SCAF,
ordered and defended virginity tests on female protesters.

The toxic mixture of victim-blaming and the denial of a woman's right to be an individual - making personal choices without being branded with a scarlet letter - is one of the main causes of the sexual harassment epidemic now gripping the nation

Such an obsession with female virginity implies that women are merely symbols of "honour". That the worth of a woman or girl is based not on her personal achievements or contributions to society - but on her ability to maintain her family and her society’s collective "honour".

On the other hand, male virginity is brushed aside and laughed off because, after all, "boys will be boys".

Many contributors to the hashtag this week expressed the shame they felt they had brought on their families by being victims. The toxic mixture of victim-blaming and the denial of a woman's right to be an individual - making personal choices without being branded with a scarlet letter - is one of the main causes of the sexual harassment epidemic now gripping the nation.

Egyptian women of all backgrounds - economically, religiously and socially diverse - are often forced to assess their choice of dress, companionship, time of day and destination before leaving the safety of their homes.

Special coverage: Inside Egypt's
war on democracy and civic life

Egypt has not always been this way. Educated, middle- and upper-class Egyptian women, at least, used to enjoy the freedom to make their own fashion choices without the threat of sexual violence. Many believe that this freedom ended when a wave of Islamisation began in the 1970s.

Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, in an attempt to weed out supporters of his predecessor, Gamal Abdel-Nasser, allowed Nasser's political enemies - mainly Islamists - a closely monitored dominance of social and political discourse.

Paired with newly freed Islamists came a wave of Egyptian migrants returning from neighbouring Wahhabi Saudi Arabia. This resulted in an unprecedented number of Egyptians embracing strict interpretations of Islamic texts.

But the view that Sadat's era of Islamisation is the root cause of the country's current widespread sexual harassment is simplistic. Equating a shift in religious attitude to a normalising of sexual violence ignores other factors that caused such a breakdown in Egyptian society.

The economic downturn caused by Sadat's infitah liberalisation policy only worsened during Mubarak's privatisation schemes. It became more difficult for young Egyptian men to afford marriage - traditionally a very materialistic affair here, as in other places. As marriage became more elusive, sexual frustrations rose among young men.

This, however, was nothing but a background grievance rather than the direct cause of sexual harassment as suffered by Egyptian women today.

Victims are often targeted for being activists or regular attendees at protests

The first reported case of mass sexual harassment, as in Zagazig last week, was
during the presidential referendum in 2005. Egypt's current military state used sexual violence as a means of torture of female political dissidents - but it was in 2005 that the government first used this weapon on the streets.

As described by a 2015 Amnesty International
report, politically motivated mass sexual assault resembles "circles of hell".

Victims are often targeted for being activists or regular attendees at protests. Once the target has been chosen a mob of regime-allied plain-clothed men commence circling the victim - catcalling, groping and in some cases even raping her repeatedly or attacking her with deadly weapons.

The use of sexual violence as a tool of political repression became more common in Egypt after 2005. Famously during and after the January 25 uprising in 2011,
female journalists and protesters were mobbed by plain-clothed security personnel and thugs on government payroll.

It is reported by
Amnesty International that five hundred cases of such mass assault took place between June 2012 and June 2014 alone.

Government endorsement of such behaviour caused its spread into other, non-political, settings.
Since 2006, religious holidays have become a common setting in which mobs sexually harass women as they celebrate in their new clothes. One of the earliest such incidents saw women chased for hours in downtown Cairo, their clothes torn off as they made narrow escapes.

The religious nature of the holidays does not deter the crowds, in fact
sexual harassment has become an integral part of Egyptian Eid celebrations.

In a stunning act of hypocrisy, the regime, which uses sexual violence as a weapon against dissidents, has passed
laws to prevent the crimes it so frequently commits - yet the social stigma results in massive under-reporting.

State-sanctioned sexual harassment and widespread misogyny have transformed Egyptian streets into a hellscape for women. It no longer matters if a woman is young or old, a hijabi or a non-hijabi - or even a niqabi. Some 99.3 percent of Egyptian women report having been sexually harassed at some point. 99.3 percent.

Sexual harassment has now become a universal marker of what it means to be a woman in Egypt.         

Gehad Quisay is a history and politics researcher, having graduated from SOAS and Georgetown University. She has also worked as a researcher at a London based think-tank focusing on post-Arab Spring nation building