The battle to keep women in Tahrir Square

Egyptian Salafi preacher Ahmed Mahmoud Abdulla — known as Abou Islam — recently made remarks justifying sexual violence against female protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, claiming that women who join protests are asking “to get raped”. The preacher, who owns private religious television channel Al-Ummah, has previously stirred controversy when he burnt a Bible outside the US Embassy in Cairo during last year’s protests over anti-Islam film the Innocence of Muslims.

In a video posted online last Wednesday, Abdulla said that women who join the protests are “either crusaders who have no shame or widows who have noone to control them”. He also described them as “devils”, and added that “they talk like monsters”.

Halim Elshaarani | Demotix

A protester chants during a march against sexual harassment

A few days before he made the controversial statements, at least 19 women were reportedly gang raped in Tahrir Square during a Friday protest marking the anniversary of the January, 2011 mass uprising that toppled authoritarian President Hosni Mubarak. One woman was hospitalised after attackers used a knife to cut her genitals.

Risking stigma and breaking an age-old taboo on sexual violence, many of the women have since spoken out, giving disturbing testimonies of the attacks in interviews published in newspapers and broadcast on radio and television. In a show of solidarity and support for the rape victims, hundreds of women protesters meanwhile staged a rally in downtown Cairo on Wednesday, protesting sexual harassment and demanding an end to sexual violence.

“Women and girls are a red line,” the protesters chanted. Some of the demonstrators brandished kitchen knives to send a message that they were capable of defending themselves.

Sexual harassment has plagued Egypt for decades. In 2008, a study by the Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights (ECWR) revealed that more than 80 per cent of Egyptian women have been subjected to sexual harassment. Since Egypt’s revolution two years ago, there has been a surge in sexual violence against women, and rights activists say that harassment over the past two years has become “more violent and more organised”. The warn that the phenomenon has now reached “epidemic proportion”.

Nehad Abou Komsan, Chairperson of ECWR said that she believes the rise in the number of reported incidents since the revolution may be due to the fact that “in the freer post-revolution environment, more women are willing to speak out against harassment”. In the past, victims of harassment or sexual assault rarely reported the incidents for fear of being blamed or stigmatised. Since the revolution however, both women and the media have broken their silence. In recent months, the issue has been publicly debated a number of times in TV talk shows and has been tackled by local dailies.

The first time such assaults were reported in the press was during Egypt’s 2005 presidential elections, when female journalists were molested and stripped by what were believed to be security forces in plain clothes hired to attack the journalists. The following year, a brutal mob attack on girls celebrating Eid Al Fitr in downtown Cairo sent shockwaves across the nation, bringing the issue of harassment to light.

On 11 February 2011 — the night former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak was forced out — CBS Correspondent Lara Logan was sexually assaulted by a mob of 200 to 300 frenzied men in Tahrir Square, as tens of thousands of jubilant opposition activists celebrated Mubarak’s ouster. Since then, a series of sexual assaults by mobs have been reported, targeting mainly prominent female activists and journalists.

The wave of assaults has led rights campaigners to infer that the “targeted and systematic attacks are being used by the state to keep women away from the protests”. On 8 March 2011, scores of women demanding equal rights at a rally marking International Women’s Day were verbally abused and shoved by bearded men who shouted at them to go home. The following day, several female protesters arrested by the army near Tahrir Square were electrocuted and subjected to humiliating “virginity checks” performed by a male doctor. Samira Ibrahim, one of the young protesters subjected to such a test filed a lawsuit against the then-ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. She won the case and the military promised that such tests would not be performed on female detainees in military prisons in the future. She however, lost a second case against the military doctor she had accused of performing the tests, who was acquitted by a military court. In December 2011, another female protester was stripped down to her bra, dragged by soldiers and beaten during a protest outside the parliament building. A video of the “girl in the blue bra” went viral on the internet , provoking a public outcry and a wave of anti-military protests.

Sexual harassment has increased since protests calling for “the downfall of the Islamist regime” began at the end of last month. The surge in sexual violence in the protest areas has given rise to informal groups like Tahrir Bodyguard and Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment/Assault— initiatives set up by volunteers and rights activists who patrol Tahrir Square during protests, keep track of sexual assault incidents and report them to rights organisations. The volunteers also try and protect female protesters by forming human chains around them or by coming to the rescue of women who are under attack. In their neon vests and helmets, Tahrir Bodyguard members are easy to spot.

Many activists believe that paid thugs are responsible for the spike in recent harassment, which they say is being used to keep female protesters out of Tahrir Square and away from the Presidential Palace.

In a press release issued last Wednesday, Amnesty International stated that rights activists believe that “the state may be behind the organised and coordinated attacks which are aimed at silencing women and excluding them from public spaces.” In most of the assault incidents, similar tactics have been used by the perpetrators to “intimidate and degrade the women”, the statement added.

Morsi’s Islamist supporters meanwhile blame the attacks on former regime loyalists who, they say,” hire thugs to tarnish the image of Islamists”.

“Violence was used by the old regime to silence dissenters. Now, old regime remnants are still using the same methods to further their interests and turn people against the new regime,” argued Walid El Garf, an interpreter with State TV and supporter of President Mohamed Morsi.

Rights activists have called on the government to bring the perpetrators to justice, asking President Morsi to take urgent action to end the culture of impunity.

The Egyptian president has been quick to respond to the call. Last week, he announced via his official Twitter account that a sexual harassment law was currently being drafted and would soon be ratified by the Cabinet. Prime Minister Hesham Qandil has also annnounced that his cabinet was working with civil society organisations and the state-sponsored National Council for Women (NCW) to finalise the law. Mervat El Tellawy, Secretary General of the NCW, has meanwhile urged victims of sexual assault to report incidents to the Council so that legal measures may be taken against the perpetrators. An Interior Ministry source has also said that surveillance cameras would soon be installed in the main squares and on downtown streets to monitor incidents of sexual harassment and assault.

While the increased violence against women has been cause for growing concern, the long-awaited new legislation, the increased willingness of women to speak out and the growing number of NGOs fighting harassment (either by spreading awareness about it, encouraging women to speak out or protecting women during protests) are all encouraging signs of positive change to come. Rights activists welcome the change but insist that more needs to be done to end gender-based discrimination.

“Changing the attitudes of men and women can only take place through education and awareness campaigns, ” said activist Azza Kamel of Fouada Watch, an NGO that has established a round-the-clock hot line for victims to report incidents of sexual harassment, verbal abuse or assaults against women. Kamel also advocates training of the police, traditionally known to take harassment reports lightly . “But above all”she said, there must be zero tolerance for those who incite violence against women (referring to the recent comments by Salafi preacher Abou Islam.)

“Such extremists must be silenced. Incitement is as big a crime as the assault itself”, Kamel added.

Journalist Shahira Amin resigned from her post as deputy head of state-run Nile TV in February 2011. Read why she resigned from the  “propaganda machine” here.

Egypt: Court clears ‘virginity test’ doctor

A doctor accused of carrying out forced “virginity tests” on female Egyptian protesters has been acquitted by a military court. Ahmed Adel was cleared after the judge found contradictions in witness statements. The case was brought by Samira Ibrahim, who said the “tests” were carried out on female protesters who were detained during a protest in Tahrir Square in March 2011. Ibrahim wrote on Twitter that the verdict had stained the honour of Egypt and she would carry on until she had “restored Egypt’s rights”.

Released Maikel Nabil continues to speak out against military rule

Ten months in a tiny prison cell with padded walls and flickering lights have done little to alter 26 year-old Egyptian blogger Maikel Nabil’s views on the military government running Egypt in the transitional phase. Instead, his confinement appears to have only strengthened his resolve to continue the fight against what he describes as a “corrupt regime” that he hopes, will soon be toppled.

Maikel was released on the 24th of January after the military rulers announced they would pardon 1959 political detainees (who had faced military tribunals) ahead of the first anniversary of the 25 January Revolution. The move was seen by skeptics as an attempt to appease a public that has grown increasingly weary of heavy handed military rule. Maikel had been charged with allegedly “spreading rumours about the army and insulting the military establishment” but insists these were “trumped up charges” to punish him for publicly criticising the military in his blog posts.

Leading a protest through the streets of downtown Cairo on Saturday, Maikel chanted anti-military slogans and beckoned to fellow Egyptians on the street to join the rally. “Are you not Egyptian?” he cried. “Have your rights not been violated?” Scores of young activists — many of whom had themselves been subjected to torture and abuse at the hands of security forces — chanted after him. Their cries of “Down with military rule!” and “Yes, we dare to chant against the military” were met with nods of approval from pedestrians and commuters, some of whom signaled a thumbs up in agreement.

Earlier in a press conference at the Journalists’ Syndicate, Maikel shocked journalists with a graphic account of his jail experience. He recalled having endured verbal abuse and mockery by prison guards and interrogators, being forced to watch fellow convicts being tortured and having had chemicals sprayed up his nose and drugs infused in his meals in attempts to manipulate his thinking. Maikel was then transferred to El- Abbasiya Mental Health Hospital for checks on his sanity. Doctors had resisted pressure from authorities to declare him psychologically unstable for refusing to stand trial, he said.

Samira Ibrahim, a protester who had been detained and subjected to a forced virginity test on the 9 March for camping out in Tahrir Square joined Maikel’s march from the Journalists’ Syndicate to Tahrir Square. She challenged the military council, filing a lawsuit against military rulers for humiliating checks performed on 17 female protesters by a male doctor in the Cairo Museum grounds. She lamented that despite a ruling by a Cairo Adminstrative Court in December declaring an end to the practice, “attempts are underway to change the charge from rape to indecent assault.”

Meanwhile, thousands of Egyptians took to the streets Saturday to commemorate the “Friday of Rage” — the worst day of violence in last year’s mass uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak. The biggest rally was held on Kasr El Nil Bridge, scene of last year’s bloody clashes between security forces and pro-democracy activists.The protesters demanded justice for the victims and their families, vowing to continue the revolution until their demands are met.

Joining the Kasr el Nil protest, Maikel warned the revolutionaries that their struggle against the military dictatorship must continue “lest the revolution be aborted and they all end up behind bars.” He and the other activists pledged they will not rest until the military returns to the barracks, handing over power to a civilian government.

Victory for women protesters subjected to “virginity tests”

A Cairo civilian court has ordered an end to the practice of forced virginity tests on female detainees in military prisons.

Judge Ali Fekry, head of the Egyptian Administrative Court, read out the ruling at noon on Tuesday in a courtroom  packed with pro-democracy activists and journalists. The crowd immediately erupted in cheers of jubilation and anti-military chants. Activists outside the courtroom hugged and congratulated each other flashing the victory sign.

Samira Ibrahim, the 25-year-old woman who had filed a lawsuit against the army for ordering the virginity checks, is one of several female protesters who were subjected to the humiliating tests after being arrested by the military during a protest in Tahrir Square on 9 March.

In that demonstration, staged less than a month after President Hosni Mubarak was forced to step down, the Egyptian military had appeared to deliberately target the protesters. Soldiers dragged dozens of pro-democracy activists from Tahrir Square and through the gates of the  Egyptian Museum.

Salwa Hosseini, a 20-year-old hairdresser who was among the protesters rounded up by the army later told CNN that uniformed soldiers had tied her up , forced her to the ground and repeatedly slapped her. They shocked her with a stun gun, calling her a prostitute.

Bowing to public pressure, the army later suspended the one year prison sentence it had handed the protesters. Hosseini and the other female protesters later told reporters “The army wanted to teach us a lesson. They wanted to make us feel that we do not have dignity.”

An Amnesty International report, published weeks after the March 9 protest, claimed female demonstrators were beaten, given electric shocks, strip-searched, threatened with prostitution charges and forced to submit to virginity tests .

After repeated denials by military authorities that the virginity tests had been conducted, a senior Egyptian military general finally admitted to CNN on 30 May 30 that the virginity checks had indeed been performed. The general however defended the practice.

“The girls who were detained were not like your daughter or mine,” the general said. “These were girls who had camped out in tents with male protesters in Tahrir Square.”

He added that the army had carried out the tests in “self-defence so that the women wouldn’t later claim they had been raped by Egyptian authorities.”

Wiping away tears of joy, Samira told reporters outside the courtroom Tuesday that “justice had at last been served.”

The court had postponed a hearing in November leading activists to suspect the case may drag on for months.

Human Rights lawyer Hossam Bahgat said the case was a “victory for all women” adding that it was the first crack in the army’s impunity.

Samira’s case marked the second “victory” for pro-democracy activists this week in rulings involving the army. Another court had ordered the release on bail of prominent blogger Alaa Abdel Fattah a day earlier. Alaa was accused of inciting violence against the military and attacking soldiers in deadly clashes between security forces and Coptic protesters demanding protection of their churches last October.

The military generals running the country since President Hosni Mubarak was forced out in February  have faced mounting pressure from pro-democracy activists in recent weeks for rights violations. A series of nationwide protests broke out last week after the local and international media flaunted pictures of  military brutality against pro- democracy activists who had staged a sit in outside cabinet headquarters demanding an end to military rule. A picture of a half-naked female protester  being dragged and beaten by soldiers who had torn off  her clothes, triggered public outrage and prompted thousands of Egyptian women to take to the streets last week chanting that “Girls are the red line” and “No to military rule”.

Similar slogans were repeated on Tuesday as Samira and the activists marched from the courtroom in Dokki to Cairo’s Tahrir Square to celebrate the ruling. Egypt’s first female presidential candidate, Bothayna Kamel, a staunch supporter of women’s  and minority rights marched alongside Samira, leading  the crowd over Kasr el Nil bridge to Tahrir. Male activists  joined the rally  forming a “protective cordon” to shield the women against any harrassers as they had done in the women’s march earlier in the week.

With calls growing louder in Egypt in recent weeks for a quick handover to civilian rule, the army appears  jittery and willing to make concessions to appease a disgruntled public. The generals have expressed regret for the widely publicised photograph of the half-naked woman under attack from army soldiers. The apology, the release of blogger Alaa Abdel Fattah and the ruling to stop the virginity checks on female detainees all signal a clear policy shift by the army, away from the repressive tactics. But sceptics here wonder if it may be “too little too late” as plans are already underway for “a second revolution” on 25 January 2012 in Tahrir to force out the autocratic military rulers.