A RISE in mob sex attacks on female protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, where the uprising against former dictator Hosni Mubarak began, has alarmed women’s rights activists.
During a mass demonstration on the second anniversary of the Egyptian revolution last week, nearly 30 sexual assaults were reported by anti-harassment groups. Six of the women attacked had to be hospitalised – one of them had been sexually assaulted with a knife.
Mass protests and clashes with security forces – which have left more than 50 people dead in the past week – have become a regular feature of life in Egypt after the uprising.
Recent demonstrations have targeted Islamist president Mohamed Morsi, who has angered many people by pushing through a constitution lacking a broad national consensus in an apparent attempt to consolidate the power of the Muslim Brotherhood, to which he is linked.
Sexual harassment, and in particular co-ordinated group attacks on women, have become regular occurrences during mass demonstrations. Lara Logan, now 41, a US journalist for CBS news, was brutally beaten and sexually assaulted on the day Mubarak fell from power. Last year, British journalist Natasha Smith, 21, was stripped naked and sexually abused during a rally after Mr Morsi won the presidential elections.
Female protesters who marched alongside young men to overthrow Mubarak are increasingly being targeted by gangs believed to be being paid to roam Tahrir Square to harass and rape women to discourage them from joining protests.
One female victim attacked last week gave an account of her ordeal to Operation Anti-Harassment, a coalition of NGO and activist groups working to combat sexual assaults during demonstrations. She said she became separated from her friend when a crowd surrounded them, pushing and pulling them apart.
“They groped every part of my body, violently shoving their fingers in my backside and the zip of my trousers,” she said. “Suddenly, I felt something sharp, and realised one of the attackers had a small tapered rod he was trying to push inside my trousers. I was screaming, choking and crying. I felt helpless. I began shouting hysterically.”
Her attackers also pulled the scarf she wore around her neck tightly to choke her and used it to drag her towards them.
She said: “One young man of less than 20 years old ripped my jumper and my bra off and began to grope my breasts. I felt disgusted and weary and thought I was going to pass out, I genuinely though I might die.”
A passer-by finally managed to rescue her, beating her attackers and lighting a fire to disperse the crowd.
Marwa el-Daly, 36, a community organiser, was at the same demonstration. She narrowly escaped an attack by taking shelter in a fast-food restaurant after she realised she was becoming surrounded by a mob. A woman raped by the same mob was later brought to the restaurant after being saved by a passer-by.
Me Daly said: “She had been badly beaten – she had bruises all over her face and a black eye and was shaking and sweating. They tore her trousers off. The man who rescued her gave her his pair to wear.”
She said the attacks, carried out by large groups of men attacking simultaneously, seemed clearly co-ordinated.
Rebecca Chiao, founder of HarassMap, a social media initiative mapping the prevalence of sexual harassment countrywide, said: “There is no proof of who is instigating the attacks but there appears to be a political agenda behind it. The government has used sexual assault as an intimidation tool before, during anti-Mubarak protests in 2005.”
HarassMap also mobilises local volunteers, who talk to people in their community to raise awareness and change cultural attitudes to harassment. “Change has to come from society,” Ms Chiao said.
Police and security forces stay away from demonstrations to avoid clashes, and in the absence of security, local activists have formed groups to patrol the square and intervene to save any women they see being attacked.
Maria Sanchez, a spokesman for one such group, Tahrir Bodyguard, said it had intervened in ten cases during the anniversary demonstration last week. Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment recorded 19 cases. In 15 cases, the groups’ volunteers were able to transport the women to safety.
The groups have set up emergency hotlines, and have plans to set up makeshift watchtowers in the square. They are also training volunteers in how to rescue a woman being attacked by a mob, as well as running self-defence courses and providing psychological and legal help for victims of assault.