"The Circle of Hell" By Salma El Tarzi

Forward: Sexual Harassment Special Issue

06/19/2014 . By Dr. Nancy Okail

Although sexual harassment in Egypt is a well-known phenomenon, video footage taken by one of the thousands of Egyptians celebrating Abdel Fattah El Sisi’s rise to presidency of the gang rape of an Egyptian woman in Tahir Square graphically exposed a disturbing trend. The violent imagery of over 50 men sexually assaulting a lone woman incited a maelstrom of emotion among Egyptians. The mob sexual assault, sadly, was shared on social media at a time when President Sisi called on his audience to give a round of applause in honor of Egyptian women.

After the video circulated online and subsequent reports were released of other sexual violence in Tahrir that day, many public figures addressed the incidents. These responses varied from summary denouncement of the incident to a dismissal of the attack as the product of too much “celebration.” Blame was passed—from the Muslim Brotherhood as an attempt to ruin Sisi’s celebrations—to Egypt’s “classic” scapegoat: the victims themselves. While some have fiercely defended the victim, the defense has mostly hinged on a woman’s status as “proper” woman; a family woman, present with her daughter, should not be subject to such treatment. These reactions reflect a deeper societal problem and indicate the lack of in-depth understanding of the roots of the issue. The implication that only “proper” women deserve defense of their rights and their bodies exposes a deeply discriminatory view of the types of women worthy of protection; even in condemnation of such a horrific act lies deeply entrenched patriarchal norms. The widespread shock that the video caused is also a clear indication of the state of denial and refusal to acknowledge how badly all Egyptian women are brutalized on a daily basis, with all forms of sexual harassment.

In attempt to address the dangerous implications of Egypt’s sexual violence epidemic, TIMEP has dedicated a special issue with a series of articles and a week of events in Washington D.C. It is our hope that this multi-faceted approach will begin to probe the roots of the problem, the different possible angles to take to address it, and identify the joint responsibilities of state, civil society, and public to end all forms of sexual harassment. Our objective is that these discussions do not remain in the realm of rhetoric, but that these discussions translate into tangible, informed actions. While the Egyptian government has taken commendable steps in addressing the issue through the recent ratification of a new law criminalizing sexual harassment, there is much left to accomplish.

On our part, we seek to utilize this open forum to discuss and deliberate thoughtful methods to directly improve our action programs that will contribute to solving the problem of sexual violence in Egypt, while at the same time advocating for proper government and society responses to pressing issues related to the matter. Via our advocacy statements, TIMEP seeks to provide a balanced and nuanced perspective of the issues to international policy makers and enhance the mechanisms that are now being put in place to combat sexual violence.

In this special issue focusing on sexual violence in Egypt, Mohamed Adam provides comprehensive reporting on recent developments in response to efforts to combat all forms of violence against women, with expert commentary on the new sexual harassment law and coverage of the protest that took place in reaction to the incidents in Tahrir Square. In her insightful piece, Nesreen Salem analyzes the role of society and media reactions to the mob assaults, offering a revealing account of the underlying prejudices against women. Nadia Elboubkri comments on the nature of Egypt’s narrowing public spaces and President Sisi’s perpetuation of patriarchy via rhetoric disguised as women’s empowerment.

We hope that the commentary offered here will only be the start of an ongoing and dynamic conversation that inspires continued engagement from our network and readers. Our goal is to act on turning ambitious words and plans for change into actions and measurable results that ensure equal rights and security for all citizens under law, free of any form of discrimination based on gender, class, or political affiliation.