Egyptian protesters hold up placards and shout slogans during a demonstration in Cairo against sexual harassment on February 12, 2013. (KHALED DESOUKI/AFP via Getty Images)
Analysis

Women on the Frontline: The Anti-Sexual Violence Movement in Egypt Ten Years After the Revolution

Ten years after the revolution, Egyptian women are still raising their voices against sexual assaults and harassment, especially over social media platforms. This phenomenon came to the forefront of attention a few months ago, when a group of women started a campaign accusing a wealthy Egyptian student of a series of rapes and sexual assaults. Nearly 50 accusers first came forward, and the number eventually exceeded 100, according to Assault Police, an Instagram and Twitter account set up by activists to collect testimonies.

As part of its legacy, the Egyptian revolution has created a new space for women—and Egyptians at large—to discuss sexual harassment and violence. Years ago, hardly any women could openly speak about their sexual harassment or assault experiences. Today, it is a matter of public debate and prominent civil society action. While shifting public attitudes among men and women is a long-term challenge, recent years represent an early step on that long road. These developments also come when social media is increasingly central to such progress, offering women unique opportunities to speak against the violence against them.

However, accountability for all types of sexual violence has been tenuous over the last ten years. Blaming the victim of sexual violence has been the most common reaction, whether from the government or society at large, in disregard for the root causes behind gender-based violence.

The uprising created the context that helped highlight sexual harassment and exposed the government’s methods to threaten women and discourage them from participating in public protests. At first, various activists and citizens started documenting and recording sexual assault incidents and posting them on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and their blogs—efforts that demonstrated how women face real sexual violence for their political participation. This documentation and visualization materialized women’s struggles and brought publicity to sexual abuse in public spaces.

In 2012, three social initiatives (Basma/Imprint, Shoft Tahroush, and Did El Tahroush) started to intervene directly against the sexual harassment and assault that often occurs during Eid holidays, when mass gathering in shopping areas, cinemas, theaters, and other public spaces embolden offenders. Groups and initiatives seeking to confront sexual assault at protests also emerged—such as Opantish, and Tahrir Bodyguard, which were all formed to respond to the massive sexual assaults and rape incidents during Tahrir Square demonstrations between 2011 and 2014. Some of these initiatives—such as Harassmap and Imprint—focused on bystander intervention and raising community awareness of women’s rights.

Roots of the movement

In downtown Cairo in 2006, a high-profile mass sexual assault incident took place, referred to as the “Circle of Hell”—a term coined by the organizations working to combat such attacks and aid survivors— when a large crowd of men attacked multiple women to harass, strip, and, at times, rape—sometimes with sharp knives. Activists at the time captured the series of attacks on their phone cameras and posted them online, documenting one of the most horrible violent phenomena of such attacks.

While efforts to counter such assaults in public have roots in the response to these 2006 attacks, the anti-sexual violence movement emerged in Egypt after the Arab Spring, when it still had to fight against an environment of social silence, lack of attention, and victim-blaming around sexual assault. New groups tried making changes on different levels and creating new platforms for social debates. This included a dramatic increase in Egyptian women’s movements and organizations over the past ten years dealing with many aspects of women’s lives such as education, health, legal education, and income.

A mobilized movement

When I joined the movement in 2012, I witnessed the change happening in the streets and inside different public institutions like universities, schools, and offices. These initiatives succeeded in raising awareness and encouraged more groups to support and empower women in different ways. It also gave attention to the reforms that benefit women and children.

This movement also increased female participation in civil society work and created a generation of young women leaders encouraged to participate socially and politically.

When I joined Imprint/Basma in 2013, which was known for its intervention patrols and awareness campaigns in Cairo’s Metro and city streets, our focus was to stop street harassment from happening. The group, which was relatively unorganized at first, started with forming patrols to intervene in sexual assault incidents and eventually became a nonprofit organization in 2016—lobbying university administrations, engaging in a partnership with the UN Women in Safe Cities program, and providing training and advocacy workshops across Egypt to fight gender-based violence and street harassment.

Our work with Harassmap focused on collaborating with public and private universities across Egypt, developing an anti-sexual harassment policy for them on their campuses. By the end of 2017, we had three public universities, including Cairo University, joining the program, enforcing the procedure, and starting investigation units to receive reports and cases. We worked with Cairo University and student volunteers to support universities across the country to adopt an anti-sexual harassment policy and set up an Anti-Harassment and Violence Against Women Unit.  The goal was to ensure that schools and universities do not tolerate sexual harassment and where sexual harassment cases are appropriately dealt with.

Legal reforms

In terms of legal reforms, through awareness and advocacy campaigns, the movement successfully pressured the state into changing the sexual assault law in 2014. This change included detailed definitions of sexual harassment and different sexual assault, with penalties ranging up to five years in prison for offenders.

As a result of this movement, women also spoke out on other issues affecting them, resulting in the state imposing harsher penalties against female genital mutilation (FGM), which remains as a rampant form of violence against women in Egypt This collective also worked on combatting harmful narratives in Egyptian society that promoted victim-blaming sexual harassment within their outreach campaigns, workshops, and universities and school work.

Today and beyond

This movement met challenges in 2017 due to restrictions brought about by a law that was introduced amid a severe security crackdown on civil society, demonstrating the Egyptian government’s intention to suppress independent groups. The NGO Law affected small initiatives and organizations to obtain funding and apply for grants without being accused of illicitly receiving foreign funding or committing treason—a significant problem when considering the lack of local funders interested in supporting such initiatives. The legislation (since replaced by a new law in 2019) also impacted research work in Egypt, as the state made it a more lengthy and challenging process for researchers to obtain approval and collect data (up to one year).

Meanwhile, the state has stopped giving attention to these issuesthe public focus on fighting violence against women began to fade in 2016. The organizations that are still working are restricted by the government’s laws and regulations that make their community outreach work impossible. Some organizations had to stop their community mobilizing work or shut down completely for security issues—such as Imprint/Bassma and Harassmap. Despite Egypt’s progressive political and civic activism during and after the revolution, Egyptian women continue being attacked by state policies under the current regime. Crackdowns have been justified with protecting Egyptian society’s “family values,” which has no definition in any law in the Egyptian constitution.

Such was the case with Menna Abdel Aziz, a teenager who, in May, posted a TikTok video of herself sobbing, her face bruised and swollen, saying she had been raped. Instead of treating her as a victim, authorities jailed her, charging her with “debauchery” for wearing clothes they deemed immoral and misusing social media.

After pressure from several human rights organizations, she was transferred to a women’s shelter and was released later. This was just one example of a far-reaching crackdown in which authorities targeted young female social media influencers for “moral” violations. Even as women come forward to confront their attackers unprecedentedly, others are being arrested merely for expressing themselves.

Despite limited gains, the anti-sexual violence movement added women’s rights to the social agenda by developing techniques to work with the government, public administrators, and policymakers. It expanded the outreach of such initiatives to include the discussion of social norms and tried not to ignore them as they are the main aspects of Egyptian society. The revolution initiated a space for women from different classes, ages, and fields of work to participate in fighting violence that they are facing daily. It encouraged women to speak up and against injustices, violence, and inequalities, we have been facing for years with no attention.