Two Years On Fearless Women March for Freedom

Women Tahrir 2013.jpg

There is nothing more powerful than the thundering chants of passionate demonstrators, demonstrators who are not political activists by definition, and may not have a tangible vested interest in political outcomes. Thousands, rich and poor, educated and illiterate, urban, and rural, men, women and even toddlers marched on the second anniversary of the January 25th Revolution. Despite many publicized, as well as unofficial, stories of sexual assault on women in and around Tahrir Square during the past two years, fearless and bold women still take to the streets, some camping out for months on end in Tahrir Square.

A monaqaba (fully veiled) woman holding up a sign that read, ‘A lying president,’ was one of thousands marching to Tahrir Square on January 25. “I know people expect a monaqaba to side with the Muslim Brotherhood and President Morsi,” she said. “But this is not about God or religion. They [the Muslim Brotherhood] try to make it about that, because they have nothing else to convince us with,” she continued. Her sixteen year-old daughter interjected, “This is about a man who lies, surrounding himself by liars, this is about how sick we are of being lied to.”  The two women asked to remain anonymous.

34 year-old newlywed Salma, who comes from an affluent family, joined in on the chants. “I am here because no one has been held accountable in the deaths of protestors over the past two years. I am here because the faces have changed, but the policies, corruption, injustice and ignorance is still the same,” she told me as tears streamed down her face. “Did you know that young activists, men and women who were arrested for demonstrating two years ago under the Mubarak regime are still imprisoned, and often tortured? That is why I’m here,” she asserted.

The role of women in the political unrest has gained more momentum since they stood side by side with men in violent confrontations with the police or Muslim Brotherhood supporters over the past two years, facing the added threat of sexual assault.

Someone taking the issue of sexual assault on women into her own hands is 29 year-old Soraya Bahgat. Bahgat, who works in real estate, was on her way to Tahrir Square one November day for an anti-Morsi demonstration. “I remember it was noon on a Tuesday, and I began to experience a panic attack,” she recalls. Bahgat panicked because she was going into Tahrir Square alone where just a week earlier two girls had reportedly been assaulted by a large group of men. “I immediately went on Twitter and started Tahrir Bodyguard as a collective effort to ensure the safety of women in Tahrir,” and in a span of a couple of hours Bahgat had garnered 600 followers.

This led to the creation of the Facebook group Tahrir Bodyguard where people can share their experiences, offer their volunteer services, or stay updated on sexual assault hotspots in and around Tahrir Square.  Tahrir Bodyguard differs from other similar initiatives in the fact that volunteers wear fluorescent yellow vests as well as protective helmets, and so are easily visible in the crowd. “We have both female and male volunteers who protect women, and intervene if is something happens,” explains Bahgat, who has funded the entire initiative, including the vests and helmets from her own pocket. On the second year anniversary of the January 25th Revolution, Tahrir Bodyguard volunteers intervened in several incidents, rescued women from mobs of men, and suffered injuries and beatings in the process.

Unfortunately they were not able to get to all of the women in distress. There have been reported gang rape incidents that night. “I have come to firmly believe that gang rape is an organized tactic with a clear pattern,” says Bahgat. “Once we were set up, we were called to intervene in a situation that ended up taking us away from our location, only to discover that it was a fake situation,” she recalls. This left an entire large area of the square free of the yellow-clad Tahrir Bodyguards, and open to sexual assault on women.  Bahgat and her group are now organizing a tailor-made self-defence course that not only teaches martial arts, but is specific to Tahrir Square.

Another effective civilian initiative is HarassMap, which shows a live updated map of sexual harassment hotspots all over Egypt. The color-coded markers on the map indicate the different categories of harassment. With a phone number to send text messages of locations and incidents to as well as a smartphone app, HarassMap facilitates immediate and anonymous reporting of sexual violations against women, and checking the status of sexual harassment hotspots before heading out. The website has a library of pictures and videos, as well as a stream of news articles from different sources reporting on harassment of women.

As the 3-hour march entered Tahrir Square, surrounded by civilian barricades with ‘guards’ manning the entry points, it quickly dissipated into an already overcrowded square, the air carried the clashing sounds of chants coming from different spots. Several women stood on make-shift podiums made of boxes and whatever they could find, held megaphones, and chanted against the regime, with crowds of men and women chanting back in unison.

Later that day, as the sun began to set, a man on the main stage in the square announced that all women should begin to leave for their own safety and should not remain behind at night.

On that same day, organized marches also headed towards the presidential palace in east Cairo. At 3pm in the afternoon, a women’s march arrived, with female protestors carrying large images of leaders of the Egyptian feminist movement, Doreya Shafik and Hoda Shaarawy. The fearless women positioned themselves face-to-face with Central Security Forces lined up along the palace main gates. Among the images of iconic Egyptian female figures was one of veteran activist Shahenda Makhled who was assaulted by a Muslim Brotherhood member during the presidential palace clashes on December 5th, 2012.

Since then, violent clashes between protestors and police continue in downtown Cairo, in and around Tahrir Square. Despite the tear gas, bullets, Egyptians continue to risk their lives. While women are not often seen in the midst of these clashes, they continue to be an integral part of the opposition, and of the protests. “Women are the revolution,” said 56 year-old grandmother of four Mahasen during the march, “Without us, there is only chaos.”

Nahla Samaha is a writer/editor with a BA (Canada) and an MA (UK) in Critical Cultural and Communication Theory.

Photo: Gigi Ibrahim

Image: Women%20Tahrir%202013.jpg