Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Hands off: Women rally worldwide against Egypt assaults

[Originally posted at NOW]

Though the three men smoking cigarettes on the balcony of the Egyptian embassy probably didn’t realize it, the scene they were witnessing on the street below them Tuesday evening would also be seen by their consular colleagues in 36 cities across the world.

Responding to an online call from the Uprising of Women in the Arab World organization, some 30 activists gathered outside the embassy in Bir Hassan to rally against what they called the “sexual terrorism practiced on Egyptian female protestors.” Carrying placards and a large banner depicting Umm Kulthoum as a protestor, they took on Egyptian accents as they chanted, “Strong women in Tahrir, harassers in prison!,” “Down with the government of the [religious scholar]!,” and “Harassment will lead you nowhere, try again and I will break your hand!”

Similar protests were also held at 6pm outside three dozen Egyptian embassies in the Levant, North Africa, Europe, the USA, and the Far East.

“We are here because we directly relate to the harassment and rape that Egyptian women are being subjected to, because we are subjected to similar violence in our own countries as well,” said Diala Haidar to NOW at the protest. “It’s time for us to stand up in solidarity in all matters related to women’s issues in this region.”

Other demonstrators emphasized the same point. “I came to protest the violation of women’s bodies and minds and privacy in all the Arab countries, not just Egypt, because we have a lot of violations going on in Lebanon that we don’t talk about,” said Ghina Daou. “I’m here to defend those women who don’t have a voice to speak.”

Though sexual harassment has been among women’s grievances in Egypt for years, recent weeks have seen an alarming increase in the brutality of assaults. On January 25th, at a demonstration in Cairo’s Tahrir Square marking the second anniversary of the revolution that overthrew dictator Hosni Mubarak, over 20 women were separately attacked by mobs of hundreds of men, who stripped their clothes, molested them, beat them, and even cut their genitals with knives.

“One of the women on January 25th had to have a hysterectomy. Another ended up in intensive care,” said Bridgette Auger, a journalist who has reported from Egypt since October 2011 and was herself a victim of a group assault last June. Since the revolution, there has been “a shift in the mood [in Tahrir],” she told NOW, as well as in the organization of attacks. “You really feel that something is going on.”

Indeed, premeditated sexual assaults have “become a tactic to use against protestors, to push them away from political life,” according to Farah Barqawi, one of the organizers of Tuesday’s demonstrations. “Terrorizing these female protestors is the easiest way to keep them away from Tahrir,” she told NOW.

Predictably, opinions vary as to who exactly is organizing and funding the mobs. “Some of course are blaming the [Muslim Brotherhood], some accuse Salafists and fundamentalists in general, and some on the [Brotherhood’s] side are accusing fellow revolutionaries,” said Barqawi. At Tuesday’s protest in Cairo, demonstrators invoked [President Muhammad] Morsi’s name in relation to the attacks, chanting “Women ousted Mubarak, women will bring down Morsi.” In doing so, they appeared to point a finger at the Brotherhood.

Activists stress, however, that the phenomenon is not limited to Egypt, highlighting Syria in particular as a worrying case. Areen al-Asmi, organizer of the Damascus chapter of Tuesday’s protest, told NOW that “we Syrian women encounter sexual harassment and even rape by men from both sides [of the military conflict].” Those who have sought refuge outside the country fare little better: “In refugee camps outside Syria, people are buying women’s bodies. Syrian women in Jordan are forced into prostitution and trafficking.” Due to obvious security concerns as well as fears of arrest, Asmi said the Syrian response to Tuesday’s call was to be a strictly electronic one, confined to individuals’ homes.

What, then, should governments do to address these widespread abuses? “Our main request is to establish and enforce a very strict law against sexual harassment, assault and rape, whether in daily life or during protests, and to bring aggressors to court instead of carrying out virginity tests on the victims,” said Barqawi.

“Second is to try as much as possible to stop these attacks. There is no justification whatsoever for police standing and watching what’s happening in Tahrir, while groups of volunteers are doing their work for them. Even if they don’t receive orders, what are the police waiting for? What did they learn about ethics and protection in all their years of training?”

However, with Egypt’s only current legislative authority, the Shura Council, issuing statements Monday explicitly blaming women themselves for sexual assaults, it may be some time yet before such measures are undertaken.

Yara Chehayed contributed reporting.

No comments:

Post a Comment