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Women in Egypt Take Lead in Trying to Stop Sexual Assaults

Tuesday 26 March 2013, by siawi3


The New York Times

March 22, 2013


CAIRO — The sheer number of women sexually abused and gang raped in a single public square had become too big to ignore. Conservative Islamists in Egypt’s new political elite were outraged — at the women.

“Sometimes,” said Adel Abdel Maqsoud Afifi, a police general, lawmaker and ultraconservative Islamist, “a girl contributes 100 percent to her own raping when she puts herself in these conditions.”

The increase in sexual assaults over the last two years and the ensuing battle over who is to blame has become a stark and painful illustration of the convulsions racking Egypt as it tries to reinvent itself after the toppling of the police state. In Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt, fear kept the streets largely safe, a fear that has evaporated as the police have largely withdrawn, creating a chaotic environment that has allowed women to be victimized — largely with impunity.

But women have tried to harness at least one aspect of a society increasingly unmoored, by turning to a newly aggressive news media to go public, defying social taboos to demand attention for a problem the old government often denied.
At the same time, some Islamist elected officials have also gone public — with the most patriarchal impulses in Egypt’s traditional culture that reveal deep hostility toward politically active women.
These officials declared that the female victims had invited the attacks by participating along with men in public protests. “How do they ask the Ministry of Interior to protect a woman when she stands among men?” said Reda Saleh Al al-Hefnawi, a lawmaker from the Muslim Brotherhood’s political party, asked at a parliamentary meeting called to discuss the issue.

The revolution initially promised to reopen public space to women. Men and women demonstrated together in Tahrir Square peacefully during the heady 18 days and nights that led to the ouster of Mr. Mubarak from the presidency. But within minutes of his departure a group attack on the CBS News correspondent Lara Logan demonstrated that the threat of sexual assault was back. There are no official statistics on women attacked — partly because not all women report offenses — but all acknowledge that as the protests have continued, the attacks have grown bolder and more violent.
Today, the symbolic core of the revolution — Tahrir Square — has become a no-go zone for women, especially after dark.

As Egypt marked the second anniversary of the revolution on Jan. 25, and demonstrators protested against the new Islamist-led government, an extraordinary wave of sexual assaults — at least 18 confirmed by human rights groups and more in the assessment of Egypt’s semiofficial National Council of Women — shocked the country, drawing public attention from President Mohamed Morsi and Western diplomats.

Hania Moheeb, 42, a journalist, was one of the first victims to speak out about her experience that day. In a television interview, she recounted how a group of men surrounded her, stripped off her clothes and violated her for three quarters of an hour. The men all shouted that they were trying to rescue her, Ms. Moheeb recalled, and by the time an ambulance arrived she could no longer tell her assailants from defenders.
To alleviate the social stigma usually attached to victims of sexual assault in Egypt’s conservative culture, her husband, Dr. Sherif Al Kerdani, appeared on television with her.
“My wife did nothing wrong,” Dr. Kerdani, said.

Of the 18 confirmed attacks that day, six women were hospitalized, according to interviews conducted by human rights groups. One woman was stabbed in her genitals, and another required a hysterectomy.

In the aftermath, victims of other sexual assaults around Tahrir Square over the last two years have come forward as well. “When I see Mohamed Mahmoud Street on television from home, my hand automatically grabs my pants,” Yasmine Al Baramawy said in a television interview recalling her own attack during a demonstration last November.
She and a friend were each surrounded by two separate rings of attackers, she said. Some claimed to be protecting her from others but at the same time joined in the attack. They used knives to cut most of the clothes off her body and then pinned her half-naked to the hood of a white car. And they continued to torment her on a slow, hourlong drive to a nearby neighborhood where residents finally interceded to rescue her, she said.
“They told people I had a bomb on my abdomen to stop anybody from rescuing me,” Ms. Baramawy said.

The attacks have underscored the failure of the government of President Mohamed Morsi, of the Muslim Brotherhood’s political arm, to restore social order, and the comments by his Islamist allies blaming the women for their attacks have added an awkward embarrassment.

Pakynam al-Al Sharkawy, the president’s political adviser and the highest-ranking woman in his administration, called those statements “completely unacceptable.”
She attributed the attacks to the general breakdown in security and a climate of increasing street violence but also to the continuing refusal of the protesters to allow the police into the square since the revolt against Mr. Mubarak. “The protesters insist on keeping security out of the square, even to regulate traffic,” she said.

So far the Morsi government’s only measure to address the problem is draft legislation to criminalize sexual harassment. But women’s rights advocates say the bill would do nothing to protect women from social attitudes and scorn that assault victims face in hospitals and police stations — and the Parliament — if they try to bring legal complaints.
In an interview, for example, Ms. Moheeb said that after she was attacked, nurses told her to keep silent in order to protect her reputation.

With police protection negligible, some women say they are taking their security into their own hands. At a recent march to call attention to the sexual attacks, several women held knives above their heads. “Don’t worry about me,” said Abeer Haridi, 40, a lawyer. “I’m armed.”

Members of the political elite, meanwhile, have appeared more concerned with blaming one another. The Muslim Brotherhood “plotted the sexual harassment in Tahrir Square” to intimidate the demonstrators, Mohamed Abu Al Ghar, the president of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, asserted.
The Muslim Brotherhood, on the other hand, said opposition leaders “ignored the brutal party of harassment and rape” in the square, according to a column on the Brotherhood Web site. The rapes are “a disgrace on their foreheads,” the column declared.

Other Brotherhood lawmakers faulted the protest organizers for failing to segregate the demonstrators by sex as the Islamists usually do, designating separate spaces for women at their rallies.

Some ultraconservative Islamists, now a political power alongside the Brotherhood, condemned the women for speaking out at all.
“You see those women speaking like ogres, without shame, politeness, fear or even femininity,” declared the television preacher Ahmed Abdullah, known as Sheikh Abu Islam.
Such a woman is “like a demon,” he said, wondering why anyone should sympathize with those “naked” women who “went there to get raped.”
Ms. Moheeb called such remarks “scandalous” and argued that the response so far from the Islamist lawmakers amounted to “complicity.”
“When ordinary people say such things, ignorance might be an excuse,” Ms. Moheeb said, “but when somebody in the legislature makes such comments, they’re encouraging the assailants.”