Patriarchy and militarism in Egypt: from the street to the government

The lack of institutional concern for epidemic levels of sexual harassment and assault in Egypt is part of the larger neglect of the issue of gender equality by the post-revolutionary powers, says Heather McRobie. 

Speaking at the Nobel Women’s Initiative in Belfast, renowned journalist and activist Hania Moheeb spoke of the night she was attacked in a mass sexual assault in Cairo on Friday 25th January 2013.  She was one of nineteen women assaulted in protests that night by seemingly coordinated groups of men.  As she recovered from her ordeal, Moheeb spoke to other women who had been assaulted that night and found the method of the mass assault was eerily similar.  These were not isolated moments of violence – women were under attack for daring to inhabit public space.

Moheeb described her own personal recovery from her assault, and the ‘message’ she felt the attack was sending her, that “you should stay at home, you should stop protesting, you should feel stigmatised.”  She spoke of how her supportive husband and instinct that she should not feel ashamed for her assault were crucial in helping her to speak out about her attack where others frequently do not.

Moheeb placed the assaults, and the sense of shame that she felt other were trying to instill in her, in the wider context of the anti-women backlash since the revolution, including in the discourse of the Muslim Brotherhood.  She spoke of the lack of support given to women who choose to speak out about their sexual assaults, and the grim dissonance in the fact that Egypt’s Shura Council’s ‘Human Right Committee’ told women that they must bear the responsibility for sexual harassment and aggression if they attend protests in Tahrir Square.  

The lack of institutional concern for sexual assaults is, she argued, part of the larger neglect of the issue of gender equality by the post-revolutionary powers, aligning it with the fact that only six women out of 100 members were involved in drafting the constitution and that in the first cabinet after the revolution there was only one female minister.  In the two years since the optimism of the overthrow of Mubarak, women have been both silenced from the political and institutional arenas and violently forced out of public spaces and the terrain of protest.

The argument that the state is complicit in sexual assaults in Tahrir Square has long been held by many activists involved in the 2011 revolution, given the coordinated, quasi-militarised nature of mass assaults, the sluggish response of Morsi’s government and police powers to intervene or combat the epidemic levels of sexual harassment and assault, and the fact that women fearing for their personal safety is a convenient way to curtail levels of protest.   The descriptions of body formations in the mass attacks in and around Tahrir Square – a ring of men turned inwards on the woman, surrounding her, while a second ‘ring’ of men face outwards, preventing anyone from coming to the assistance of the woman – lend credence to the argument that these are coordinated, strategized activities.  The work of anti-sexual harassment groups such as Tahrir Bodyguard and Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment coordinate their activities on the basis that the sexual assaults themselves are pre-planned, strategized movements of bodies in public space.

In a broader sense, too, these mass assaults are coordinated in as much as they operate within the wider structural frameworks of the legacy of militarism in the city, and patriarchal modes in which public space is constructed in Egypt.  Of the many organisations that have developed to work on sexual harassment in Egypt, HarrassMap have highlighted that sexual harassment was a problem prior to the revolution, and the negligence of women’s safety in public space is not an entirely post-revolutionary phenomenon.

Hania Moheeb spoke at the Nobel Women’s Initiative in Belfast just as a new UN Women’s report was released on methods to eliminate sexual harassment in Egypt.  The report stressed the need to criminalise sexual harassment in new laws, and the importance of having both political and religious authorities play an active role in condemning sexual harassment.  But in a climate in which so many women have already been brutally assaulted and so many more discouraged from participating in public demonstrations, what faith can be placed in the post-revolutionary powers who have also driven women out of the political and decision-making processes?  The fight for women’s rights and dignity stretches from the safety of Tahrir Square to the government seats now occupied almost exclusively by men.

 Heather McRobie is writing for openDemocracy 5050 from the Nobel Women's Initiative conference Moving Beyond Militarism and War: Women-Driven Solutions for a Nonviolent World. 

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