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Africa

Sexual violence in Egypt takes on political dimension

© © Doaa Eladl

Text by Priscille LAFITTE

Latest update : 2013-02-13

Thousands of protesters took to the streets of Cairo Tuesday demanding an end to endemic sexual violence in the country, following comments by one lawmaker that women victims of sexual assaults in Tahrir Square were “100% responsible”.

Protesters took to the streets of Cairo and in capitals around the world on Tuesday demanding an end to endemic sexual aggression in Egypt that is taking on an increasingly political dimension.

The rally was the latest in a series of actions to protest against a ‘culture of impunity’ and follows harrowing reports of multiple sexual attacks, including one particularly savage rape, in and around Tahrir Square on the January 25 second anniversary of the Egyptian revolution.

The demonstrators were spurred on by comments on Monday by Egyptian lawmakers, which suggested that women were to blame for sexual attacks against them simply for being on the streets at night.

“Women know they are among thugs” when demonstrating in Tahrir Square, said Adel Afify, a member of the ultra-conservative Asala Party. “By getting herself involved in such circumstances, the woman bears 100 per cent responsibility.”

The same day, Police Chief Abdel Fattah Othman told the Egyptian Senate that the “sensitive” issue of deploying officers to demonstrations specifically to protect women would put his own men at risk.

Othman added that while rape was a criminal offence in Egypt, sexual assault is not mentioned in the statute books.

The issue has increasingly polarised opinion in Egypt. Last week, Islamist preacher and TV station owner Abu Islam demonstrated one extreme by saying that women attending demonstrations were “crusaders and widows” going to Tahrir Square “because they wanted to be raped”.

Egypt’s National Salvation Front, the main opposition group to the ruling Muslim Brotherhood, meanwhile, made a statement supporting victims of sexual aggression and criticising the Interior Ministry for being unwilling to address the issue.

Organised rape

The number of sexual assaults in Egypt, which has long been a recognised problem in the country, reached unprecedented levels on the second anniversary of the country’s “Arab Spring” revolution.

On January 25, 19 attacks were recorded in Tahrir Square, the symbolic epicentre of the revolution, and Amnesty International published a report on February 6 saying that there had been a marked increase of cases of sexual violence in recent months.

“More and more people are speaking out about this issue,” said FRANCE 24’s Cairo correspondent Sonia Dridi, herself a victim of a sexual assault while reporting from Tahrir Square in October 2012.

“Firstly it’s because women are being encouraged to report attacks, which is consequently making it less of a taboo subject.

“But they’re also reporting these incidents more because there has been an increase in attacks. Under [former president Hosni] Mubarak, Egyptian women were aware of the risk of rape, but not to the point that they were afraid to walk the streets.

“But in recent months, there is a definite feeling of menace, I can no longer walk alone on Tahrir Square, and certainly not at night – something I would not have thought twice about a year ago.”

The recent rise in the number of cases, she said, was leading to suspicions that the attacks on women were being deliberately orchestrated.

“When you see a group of young men moving in groups and pouncing on their female victims, it looks very organised,” she said. “But no one has yet pointed the finger at who is responsible. Some people are blaming Mubarak’s camp for wanting to foment trouble and discredit Morsi; others are blaming it on Islamists.”

Men supporting women

Many young Egyptian men are joining their womenfolk in protests against the sinister rise in sexual attacks.

While a demonstration earlier in February featured mainly women clutching carving knives, Tuesday’s protest featured a more even mix of sexes, all of them appalled at the growing and seemingly systematic sexual violence.

Dridi said that after she was attacked in October, she received “hundreds of messages of support, mostly from men”.

And while the police are declining to actively protect women at demonstrations in Tahrir Square, groups have emerged – including @TahrirBodyGuard and @OpAntiSH - using social networking sites such as Twitter in order to respond to incidents as soon as they are alerted, as well as giving women self-defence classes.

Date created : 2013-02-13

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