The blurry video is hard to watch. Amid a huge crowd in Tahrir Square, a woman is being mobbed and sexually assaulted by dozens of men. As the assaults continue, she is stripped completely naked. Her body is bloody and bruised. By the time the police manage to carry her away, she is limp and still.
It happened last week, during the mass celebrations marking Abdel Fattah el-Sissi’s election victory, and was just one of several similar attacks. This is Egypt today – a nation where women who dare to venture out in public are routinely harassed, and even gang raped, with near-impunity. Over the past few years there have been hundreds of attacks on women in Tahrir Square when big crowds gathered. The only difference is that this one was captured on video and posted on YouTube.
“Sexual harassment is a constant in the life of any Egyptian woman regardless of her social status or class,” says a recent report on sexual violence in Egypt. Virtually all Egyptian women say they have suffered public harassment. It is continual and pervasive. Most say they’re afraid to go out in public or use public transportation because they’ll be harassed by men.
Women seldom complain to the authorities because they are usually blamed for what happens to them. The belief that women themselves are to blame pervades all levels of society, up to the very top. This March, after a female student was assaulted by a mob of men on the campus of Cairo University, the head of the university, Gaber Nassar, publicly blamed her for “wearing inappropriate clothing.” (After rights groups protested, he issued an apology and opened an investigation.)
In fact, women are fair game no matter how they’re dressed. Women who veil are just as vulnerable as those who don’t – perhaps more so, because men believe they won’t complain. Most women are reluctant to go to the police because they know their harassers probably won’t be charged, and that they may be ridiculed or even assaulted by the authorities themselves. On the streets, adolescent boys as young as 10 treat harassment as a game. Here’s what they told a video reporter about that: “The girls are at fault because the clothing they wear forces people in the street to harass them.” And: “If the girl being harassed is respectable, she wouldn’t argue with her harasser.”
At the dawn of the wretchedly misnamed Arab Spring, Westerners hoped the overthrow of a corrupt dictatorship would liberate Egypt’s women. Instead, it made things worse. Public order deteriorated. The military regime of the immediate post-Mubarak period imposed “virginity tests” on female protesters. When the Muslim Brotherhood came to power, it began to introduce gender segregation in public places. Some politicians even argued that women who had been assaulted at demonstrations should be punished for simply showing up and inciting the assaults. Not surprisingly, a recent poll by Thomson Reuters Foundation ranked Egypt as the worst Arab country for women to live in.
It wasn’t always like this. As Emily Dyer writes in Foreign Affairs, a generation ago only the most conservative women wore headscarves, and sexual harassment was rare. Since then, the government has increasingly treated women as second-class citizens. Islamic law was declared the principal source of legislation, and women began to disappear behind the veil. Other practices made a comeback, too. Despite a law forbidding female circumcision, more than 90 per cent of women have had some form of the procedure.
Dozens of rights groups have catalogued and protested the violence. But they face another hurdle: official censorship. The government does not like them to report bad news. As the Tahrir attack became public, one female TV host responded with a giggle: “Well, they are happy. The people are having fun.” Other state media said the video is a fake, and blamed Mr. el-Sissi’s political opponents.
On Wednesday, in the face of spreading outrage, Mr. el-Sissi visited one of the victims in hospital and personally apologized. More than a dozen men have been arrested for the assaults, and tougher laws are in the works. But halting the war on Egypt’s women will require a profound cultural transformation. For a variety of reasons, that culture has turned deeply pathological. It’s not just because of religious beliefs that declare women to be inferior. It’s also the fact that millions of young Egyptian men have no hope of finding work, and therefore can’t get married, and have no sexual outlet outside of marriage. Egypt is a failed state on almost every level. And, as usual, it’s the women who suffer most.