The sexual assault on CBS news correspondent Lara Logan at the hands of 200 Egyptian men in Tahrir Square the night former president Hosni Mubarak resigned came as no surprise to any woman who has been to or lived in the country. Logan, who was in the heart of Tahrir Square in the midst of the frenzy of celebration, was sexually assaulted and beaten for almost 30 minutes. A group of women and 20 soldiers took notice of what was going on and rescued the reporter. She was immediately flown back to the USA, where she was hospitalized.
Logan’s brutal attack has brought sexual violence against women in Egypt to the spotlight, calling attention to an old and rooted problem that has tormented the country for years.
Sexual harassment in Egypt reached epidemic levels long before Logan’s unfortunate attack. According to a 2008 report by the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights (ECWR), 98 percent of foreign women in Egypt and 83 percent of Egyptian women had been sexually harassed.
“Young, old, foreign, Egyptian, poor, middle class, or wealthy, it doesn't matter. Dressed in hijab, niqab, or western wear, it doesn't matter. If you are a woman living in Cairo, chances are you have been sexually harassed. It happens on the streets, on crowded buses, in the workplace, in schools, and even in a doctor's office,” writes Mary Rogers, a CNN camerawoman and producer.
While Logan recovers at home, women in Egypt continue to fight their battles on the ground. A group of young Egyptian men and women are organizing a rally in apology to Logan and to help bring attention to the problem.
“I will join the protest for sure,” says Nahala Al-ilany, 29, a social worker and women’s rights supporter, “but I can’t help feel sad that one foreign woman gets attacked and the whole world stands up, but as thousands of us endure the same every day…. That’s not okay,” she added.
Many have been downplaying the seriousness of the issue for years, labeling it “a joke or a flirt,” yet not a year goes by without headlines bringing news about mass sexual attacks in festivals or crowded gatherings.
In 2006 during the Eid festival that follows Ramadan, hundreds of women and young girls were violently attacked by mobs in downtown Cairo in full view of police. Videos showed security standing by watching and doing nothing while women were cornered by mobs and groped, their clothes torn. After the initial shock, things went back to normal, and the story was forgotten.
Families advise their daughters to ignore harassment and move on.
“When I went to my mom and told her how I stood and faced a man who was making cat noises at me, she yelled at me and told me to always ignore these ‘men’ and keep walking.” said Rasha, whose name has been changed to protect her identity.
“Yet you can’t ignore everything. Only the other day a car was heading toward me very fast so that I had to jump out of the way, and I heard the two men in the car laugh hard and wave at me. This is so common and has happened to other friends,” she added.
Diana, a 21-year-old student at an art education school, tells how she was harassed and had to lie about it to her family.
“I was walking home from the metro station when a small car with two men inside drove toward me until I finally fell on the curb. But what hurt the most is that I had to lie to my father about my knee injury because he could have simply prevented me from going back to school.
“It’s not about my hair, you know. I walk with my friends who wear the hijab - headscarf - and they get harassed all the time,” she tells me.
Diana, who lives in a heavily populated area of Giza, says this is not the first or last time she will be harassed going to and from university.
“It becomes a reality. You leave your home and anything goes,” she tells me.
In a country where the majority of Muslim women wear the Islamic headscarf, which symbolizes modesty, they have found out the hard way that it does not matter how you dress. Many of the country’s conservative Islamic clerics criticize what they call “the wrong way of wearing hijab” and demand that women and young girls adopt a more conservative dress so that “sin and immorality does not spread.”
Many groups and observers have debated the reasons behind the epidemic proportions of the problem and why it has spread like wildfire across Egypt over the last few decades.
“I believe that sexual harassment is the result of a combination of things,” says Rebecca Chiao, co-founder of HarassMap.org, an Egypt-based outreach initiative that aims to encourage women to report incidents of sexual harassment and to educate the community on the seriousness of the issue.
“It is just one symptom of many increased social pressures - from the bad economy to increased traffic to pollution to inflation to politics and all of these things that generate frustration with no suitable outlet. In these situations, all people tend to take out their frustrations on people with less power in society. So managers are aggressive or repressive towards their staff members, they in turn are repressive towards those under them and so on spreading through society. This is the case also with women - we just have less power in society and so are acceptable targets. I think this is also why sympathy is often with the ‘frustrated’ men rather than the victims,” she explains.
Chiao has worked to end sexual violence in Egypt since 2005. She believes we need to cut through much of the talk and analysis and instead look at why our society is permitting men to do these acts. “Twenty years ago society did not permit sexual harassment - certainly not on this scale. But today we do. By staying silent, by asking for sympathy for the harassers because of their conditions we are allowing the problem to continue and to grow and spread because we are excusing their behavior,” Chiao tells me.
Most sexual harassment goes unnoticed and unpunished, as the number of women who report crimes is insignificant. General fear of the authorities and knowing they will not be taken seriously prevent women from reporting sexual assaults.
Hana, a 23-year-old American student, was harassed near her rented flat in an upscale area of Cairo in 2009. Her attacker groped her body and refused to let go despite her screams and pleas. He finally let go and fled the scene. She contacted a lawyer friend of hers and headed immediately to a police station.
The police officer would not file a report and insisted on knowing what the young woman was wearing when she was attacked. Her lawyer refused to let her answer the question, saying it was not the point and that the officer was probably trying to give her a moral lecture on modest dress. Women are often blamed for sexual harassment as the “inviters” and are often criticized for the way they dress and walk or the time of day they are in public.
The Egyptian law has no clear definition of sexual harassment and only criminalizes what it defines as sexual assault. Incidents that involve stalking, verbal comments, sexual talk or suggestions, groping, and making noises are hard to classify as sexual assault. On the other hand, rape crimes can get death by hanging, Egypt’s maximum penalty, or life in prison.
In 2008, a landmark case revived hope for an increase in justice. A man who grabbed a woman’s breast in the street was sentenced to three years in prison after the woman refused to let him escape and insisted on taking him to the police station, where she also presented witnesses who supported her story.
The majority of the women I have met in my life have been either sexually harassed or assaulted. That includes my 68-year-old mother, who last year while waiting to cross the street near our house in Cairo, was almost hit by a car full of young men that swerved, avoiding hitting her at the last minute. They threw soapy water at her and were laughing and yelling as they drove by.
Since the fall of Mubarak’s 30-year regime on February 11, many have been speaking in hopeful tones about change and the “New Egypt.” Perhaps the most hopeless part of the story are the published posts by women on HarassMap saying that some of the army, who have been commended for “safeguarding” the protesters during our country’s transition to democracy, were also harassing women in the street.
“When I was in the car and the army was organizing traffic, some of the army soldiers started cat calling me…" reads one of the posts.
The army's passing "jokes" bring to mind similar actions by the police in the old Egypt. The people who are supposedly protecting you are taking part in creating your nightmare. But like many of the women I talked to, I believe that the country is changing - maybe not as fast as we all hope or in the same direction that we are dreaming of, but change is happening and women are at the heart of it.
About the Author:
Manar Ammar is an Egyptian journalist who was born and raised in Cairo. Her work has appeared in the Daily News Egypt, All Headline News (AHN), Al Helwa Weekly, Women News Network (WNN) and Bikya Masr. Manar's writing and reporting focuses on politics and women's issues in the MENA region.