interviewBy Maria Caspani
London — Another wave of sexual violence against Egyptian women has taken place in Cairo’s famous Tahrir Square, where at least 91 women were assaulted and, in some cases, raped over four days of protests that began on June 30th, women’s rights groups said.
Advocacy group Human Rights Watch this week denounced “the failure of the government and all political parties to face up to the violence that women in Egypt experience on a daily basis in public spaces,” and urged the authorities to condemn the attacks and address the problem immediately.
Heba Morayef, Egypt director at the U.S.-based rights group, spoke to Thomson Reuters Foundation about the attacks and what needs to be done to stop them.
Does the wave of recent attacks on women in Cairo show a change or a shifting pattern in the history of sexual harassment in Egypt?
There has been an intensification, an ever steady rise in the number of cases, but never as horrific as last week … I believe that nobody has been able to conclusively document that this is in any way politically motivated and I think it is far more complicated than that. I think the opportunity lies in the fact that everybody knows the police are not going to be anywhere nearby when there’s a big demonstration in Tahrir. [Sexual harassment] is underreported. Egyptian women would rarely go to a police station – part of it is the shame factor, but more than that is just the sense that it is useless. There’s a lack of prosecution so why go to the police and go through the pain of that process?
What measures need to be adopted swiftly to tackle sexual violence?
I think this is an extremely difficult issue and it will take a long time and a comprehensive response. The only response we’ve had so far … has been either to say ‘we’re going to increase the penalty in the penal code’ or ‘we’re going to have a conference on women’s rights and violence’ or ‘the problem is that the nasty protesters are all thugs and nasty liberals’. It’s a very piecemeal, ad hoc response with zero political will to actually look into this as a very serious crime that is growing.
There has to be a strong criminal justice response but the problem there is that prosecutors, even when they have the will to investigate … you have to think about how to enhance the criminal justice’s response, from [the use of] cameras … or having a quick response team and encouraging women to come forward and log complaints. The Ministry of the Interior had said it would set up an anti-violence unit but it hasn’t really done very much.
You need to look at street lighting because [attacks] often happen in dark corners. From a prevention standpoint, you also need to get different government ministries involved. You need to look at the role of religious institutions and what kind of messages they’re sending out from the mosque every Friday. You need to look at educational institutions and not downplay sexual harassment.
Do you agree with the opinion expressed by some that such attacks are designed to keep women out of public life and confine them to their traditional role?
I disagree that it is on the instruction of any political leader, the Islamists or the SCAF [Supreme Council of the Armed Forces] because this started happening when the military was in power. I would disagree that there is any policy or structure or that these are thugs hired by any political group. What I do think is happening is that both sides are manipulating these [events] for political purposes.
It is deterring women … but I don’t think anyone has any evidence at all that this is in any way politically motivated. And honestly, knowing the Brotherhood, it’s not their style … and at Islamist protests, you don’t get this kind of experience.
If you think about it in the traditional sense, if you go to a big Salafi demonstration – ask a lot of women there – you won’t get harassed. However, I disagree with the argument that says ‘If you’re a good Muslim, no good Muslim harasses women’ because that’s ridiculous. Women are going to get harassed every single day in the streets of Cairo and it is by loads of people with the zebiba (or “prayer bump”, that is very religious individuals) or men with beards ... so that’s not true either.
I am not a sociologist but I would argue that at least in more organised settings such as an Islamist demonstration it’s not a part of that culture to then gang rape women. I’m just saying that patriarchy is very much about protecting women which is also the kind of discourse that pisses off women’s rights activists here ... it doesn’t then lead to ‘Oh my God there’s an unveiled woman, let’s gang rape her and kick her out of the square.’
Have the police been complacent, in your opinion?
It’s complicated because it’s not necessarily complacency. When you talk to the police about it they’ll say ‘Yes, nasty criminals, we’d love to intervene but of course we can’t go in Tahrir’, and the reason that’s the case is that in early 2011 every time they’d try to redeploy, there were scuffles and violence and protesters would die. So the police just stay out of it. The Ministry of Interior announced that protesters would have the responsibility of providing their own security and that actually seemed like a good solution for preventing people from getting killed [at the time]. And that was when the opportunity [for sexual attacks] came in.