Another media war has broken out, and once again, the casualties are women. While sparked by the disturbing evidence of violence directed against one woman in a video that went viral online, all women have been affected (setting aside the eight similar cases reported that same night according to EIPR, which were ignored by the media). In an environment where women are forced to live under political, social, and economic exploitation of their bodies, it is perhaps unsurprising that instead of asking why this had happened, the media were yet again more concerned about finding one political group to scapegoat for this single video-recorded crime (as though it were a truly singular case).
The aforementioned video showed pandemonium: a sea of men screaming incoherently at each other; among them, a visibly violently abused, bleeding, and naked woman was rolling, sometimes amidst their arms, sometimes on the ground. A couple of policemen are visible, trying to break through to reach her, but the tide of men was constantly pulling her in deeper—it is a hellish scene. Eventually, she reached an ambulance; it is claimed that her ordeal lasted a whole twenty minutes.
The reaction that followed was no less demonic. Sisi supporters rushed to claim that the video was that of a past incident, resurrected to ruin the jubilant occasion of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s inauguration; the disgruntled anti-coup camp promoted the video nonstop as evidence that Sisi supporters were a depraved bunch and that his inauguration was the dawn of an era of immorality. The need to pin the rape on the depravity of the “other” appears to have been far more important than addressing the incident itself, examples of which are far too frequent. More dangerously, this particular case is being used as a political tool. It has been latched upon only because it took place in Tahrir Square; meanwhile, claims of systematic assault and sexual abuse of detainees in prisons have gone largely unnoticed.
With this notoriety come the theories. Samar Fouda, daughter of a renowned Egyptian writer who was killed by Islamists 22 years ago, said on her Facebook page that rape was the result of drug abuse (tramadol), which caused men to become rapists. While drug abuse may be a problem, linking the causation of rape to drug abuse is an oversimplification and diverts attention from the real causes behind rape. It also suggests that men who rape are not in control of their actions when they are under the drug’s influence, rendering men as victims in such situations.
The Women Anti Coup Movement, for their part, issued a statement decrying the crime, but not without adding salt to the wound: “The movement confirms that what happened is but a microcosm of the raping that Sisi has committed on all of Egypt and that he has failed on his first day as the official President of Egypt to secure the safety of one of his own supporters” [translation].
This statement went on to claim that policemen at the incident were reluctant to fire a bullet into the air while they hurriedly shot into the chest of a peaceful protester. The Women Anti Coup Movement also expressed their surprise as to why the rape incident was dealt with greater seriousness than the cases of their arrested and assaulted female activists. The statement ends ironically, albeit unintentionally: “The Movement requests everyone to be a little embarrassed…and to deal with all cases with the same amount of integrity when documenting and condemning these horrific crimes.”
Egypt’s professional media were no less audacious in their responses. Maha Bahnassy, a TV presenter on Midan el Tahrir channel, reacted to news of “individual yet systemized assault incidents” in Tahrir Square, saying “They’re happy; the people are having fun.” The reporter on the scene, Samar Negida, responded that “…despite all this, these incidents never affect Egyptians’ celebratory mood….”
Indeed, they do not.
Moreover, Hoda Badran, the President of the Alliance for Arab Women and the chair of the newly-revived Egyptian Feminist Union, declared too readily that it was members of the Muslim Brotherhood who committed the rape, remarking that they were using it as a political tool against female supporters of President Sisi.
The names of the culprits and their photos were soon published, but when dealing with a system that blames the rape victim (or their political affiliation), doubts remain over whether the authorities have truly found the rapists in question or if they are still roaming free.
When Sisi visited the rape victim the next day and apologized to her on behalf of Egyptian men (seeing it as a male duty to protect women), the media began a new frenzy of condemning the incident and promising vengeance upon street harassers and rapists. Suddenly, the goal for which many activists and citizens had campaigned for years was achieved within a week—a national awakening against street harassment and sexual violence. Though Sisi’s visit was highly commendable and a symbolic first step towards abolishing the shaming of victims of sexual violence, looking deeper into the act reinforces an underlying Orwellian theme that all women deserve protection but some deserve protection more than others.
Within a social system that holds that some women deserve to be raped according to their appearance and conduct while others—“proper women,” such as the woman captured in the video, who happens to be a mother of at least one daughter—should not fall victim to rape, Sisi’s symbolic visit only further affirms the narrative. Moreover, it cements the prevailing view that not only should women be categorized as proper and improper—rapeable and unrapeable—but also that the act of categorizing itself should be concretized. Hence, Sisi’s visit, alongside that of his wife shortly afterwards, should not be read lightly. At most, it has outlined that some women, specifically those who fall within a particular understanding of proper womanhood, are not to be raped.
However, in reality, Egyptian women who dare to venture out of their homes are statistically more likely to be potential victims of rape. This reality heavily circumscribes women’s lives today. The pervasive belief in Egyptian culture is that rape happens to “loose” women caught in the hands of “weak” men. To speak of rape is to admit immorality or to open oneself to the accusation of having ulterior motives. If others dare to speak for them on their behalf, they too are accused of working against society and the state. This is how rape culture is created and sustained: not by the frequency of the incidents, but by silencing the voices that speak out. It is not a culture that was created overnight; it has taken decades of tolerating street harassment, abusive slurs, and the profanity that has seeped into everyday language, used without self-policing. This language is part of a continuum that emboldens a sense of deeply entrenched masculine superiority and impunity that ultimately can—and has—led to rape.
Women are constantly broken down physically, emotionally, and mentally and then told that they should never aspire for gender equality. They concede that rape is only to be feared and then handled in long-winded and often futile court cases, never fought. The entrenched power imbalance and discrimination on the grounds of gender is not only part of Egyptian governance but part of every home as well. Men who rape behave according to an order that is far from natural, one that teaches them that they have the right to own, dominate, and punish women and that rape is a form of control.
Victims of sexual assault and rape in Egypt never resurface to tell their stories. They hide in a grave of shame that has been dug for them through no fault of their own. They cannot be expected to be at the forefront of the fight against these crimes when all they want is to disappear. There is a rape culture, and it is a culture that ingrains the subjugation of women from cradle to grave.
This most recent incident has revealed what society excels at: the art of scoring political points. Who is the most moral of us all? The real answer is a resounding “no one.” The first gang rape that was reported during the revolution happened on February 11, 2011, when all political affiliations were present in Tahrir Square. At the time, everyone pointed a finger at “the other” instead of at themselves.
Instead of focusing on dissuading men from raping either through legal punishment or education—which would both be positive steps nonetheless—we must equally envision strategies and implement policies that will empower all women to a point that impairs men’s ability to rape. Such a strategy fundamentally alters a power structure that cast women as mere victims and empowers them as equal actors that may also dismantle a man’s “power” to rape. This can only be done successfully if all agents of change take charge and challenge the existing, discriminatory status quo.
There is no superhero who will come to the rescue in this sad story—certainly not one backed by the second-strongest army in the Middle East, particularly when that one has a history of conducting forced virginity tests on female activists and presides over their assault in jails to this day. The memory of the recent video may not join the trash of collective memory along with that of the “blue-bra-girl” and the other numerous gang rape and sexual harassment victims. However, it will not be used to campaign for the rights of all women. There will be many who will be victims of sexual violence but who will not matter because their cases do not serve a political purpose. Meanwhile, the justified uproar will soon die out, and people will continue to live as they always have. They will continue to tell their daughters to cover up, to stay at home, to not speak to strangers, but they will never tell their sons that rape is not an option…until women understand that rape is a fight they can win.