Tahrir Bodyguard: Fighting Sexual Harassment on Egypt’s Streets

Tahrir Watchtower November 30.jpg

Slowly weaving in and out of the crowds in Tahrir, bodyguards pass out hotline numbers to women while keeping an eye out for sexual violence and attacks in the square. Activists and members of civil society are fighting hard to reverse a pattern of violence and disrespect in Egypt. However, their role is often to simply offer protection in times of need. Several initiatives have cropped up in the wake of the 2011 uprising, in an attempt to raise awareness and address a festering social issue Egypt continues to face.  

With mounting attacks on women, foreign and Egyptian alike, mob assaults in Tahrir have sadly become familiar. Located in Cairo’s epicenter, Tahrir has been a central location for protests in the city. At the same time, it has also become a place where dozens of girls have experienced the horror of innumerable men attacking them on the basis of their nationality, career, or simply their gender.

Some speculate that these mobs have been formed intentionally, roaming the streets looking for victims. The reality is, it is impossible to know who these people are, and if they are part of organized gangs. Often times the perpetrators appear to be drugged and are armed. As a result, urgency has pushed people to organize to protect each other.

Little has been done on the political front to battle the deepening problem. Since the uprising, many rights groups and activists have pushed for the issue to be on the post-revolution government’s agenda. While addressed to a certain extent, the measures have been less than satisfactory.

It is no wonder that patience has grown thin. A woman’s march on March 9, 2011, coinciding with International Women’s Day March, ended in disappointment for the few women and men who participated. Instead of their voices being heard, angry men staging an anti-women’s protest verbally and sexually harassed them.

Appealing to the authorities has proven difficult. Members of the military and police themselves have been accused of victimizing women with sexual violence, often a tool used to deter female protestors from participation. Most notable was a case brought against the military by Samira Said, in which she accused the army of carrying out forced virginity tests on female protesters. The investigations led to impunity for the doctors and army personnel involved.

Beyond the microcosm of Tahrir and Cairo, stories spread, revealing the prominence of sexual violence throughout the provinces. Sadly they may be all too common. A 16-year old girl in Assiut was shot dead after spitting on her harasser. A 14-year-old Christian girl in Marsa Matruh is rumored to have been abducted and married off to her kidnappers. Several instances of veiled women cutting unveiled women’s hair in the Cairo metro system have been reported. These stories are by no means proof of a new development in society, but rather are evidence of a problem that has existed for years.

Public holidays, such as Eid al-Adha are often witness to widespread harassment and assault. Typically, overcrowded areas in the major cities see increased assaults on women. This year, as the Eid approached, vigilante groups of young men roamed Cairo’s downtown streets to prevent such harassment. Ahmed, an activist in Cairo, together with a group of friends, monitored the downtown area. When they would see a woman being harassed, they would intervene and spray paint the perpetrator’s shirt, essentially branding them. At the time, groups of perpetrators didn’t exceed three or four men.

In late 2011, however, Tahrir witnessed an increase in mob attacks with sometimes up to 100 men involved. The vigilante technique used during Eid eventually developed into an initiative now known as the “Tahrir Bodyguard.” Consisting of many different rights groups, anti-sexual harassment campaigns, and political movements, members take shifts roaming Tahrir Square, preventing attacks on women. They have one goal: protect the girl and get her out. Their work is not without reward. Several attacks have been prevented since mass protests broke out in response to the President’s constitutional decree giving him sweeping powers in the government.

Egypt’s draft constitution, going to a referendum on December 15, does not address the issue of sexual violence or its criminalization at all, and as a result, there continue to be serious concerns.

Many of the groups involved in Tahrir Bodyguard and similar initiatives, are battling hard to see improvements on the ground. Some have been working for years, so popular movement and increased awareness is inspiring despite the difficulty in sustaining it.

While it may take time to see significant empirical evidence of progress, the greatest success so far has been the elevation of the issue to national dialogue, both on the street and ministerial levels. The institutionalization of the discourse has been spearheaded by the National Women Council (NWC).  In August of 2011, the (NWC) began a national campaign called “Together Against Harassment.” Its aim was to combat sexual harassment on the streets, particularly during Eid the following October. The NWC led workshops with the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Interior, the Ministry of Endowments, and the Coptic Church to discuss a plan forward. They also called for mosques and churches to address this issue in prayer sermons and church services.

It was thus an accomplishment when the police made over 172 arrests for sexual harassment last October during Eid, and also reported that they received over 1,000 additional reports. Additionally, a man was sentenced to 2 years in prison for sexual harassment, and the victim was compensated 10,000 EGP.

These efforts, although not enough, are pushing society towards a widespread awareness of the issue. Recognizing the problem exists is an important first step for real change. Tahrir Bodyguard and similar groups continue to mobilize volunteers during protests, and women have reported that they feel safer with members of these initiatives among them.

The hope is that an active civil society coupled with a growing awareness movement on the streets and in homes will place pressure on the Egyptian government to act. In order for changes in policy to be made, a revolutionary approach will be needed, one that can reeducate the population, criminalize the actions of the perpetrators, and prevent further victims of sexual violence.

Photo: Watchtower built by Tahrir Bodyguard to monitor protests for clashes and harassment (DNE)

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