It’s not a revolution for those left behind

By — June 8, 2012

“Who should I blame for this? Mubarak for destroying my country’s education so those men have no respect for women and have become just animals … our useless police who are incapable of defending us…our religious leaders who claim that they want what’s best but they don’t go to these young men and teach them what’s right…. Who? … I am sorry for the women of Egypt… . I am angry but I am not broken.”

Nihal Saad Zaghloul, an Egyptian activist involved in organizing a protest against sexual harassment in Tahrir Square.

They came to the square in thousands, hands clasped, voices raised, banners held aloft. They risked everything to fight a corrupt and unfair regime. They called for a revolution. And Egypt’s revolutionaries promised change—a new dawn for a country blighted by prejudice and inequality, change for those who had been downtrodden, mistreated, and ignored. But a new age of injustice is dawning. And it’s not a revolution for those left behind.

Women played a hugely important role in the uprising that eventually toppled President Hosni Mubarak, setting aside traditional gender roles and expectations to stand alongside male activists in the fight for freedom. But since the success of the revolution in February 2011, they have reaped little reward for their brave efforts, and increasingly serious reports suggest that they are suffering instead. In the square where they risked their lives for the revolution, they now face abuse and sexual assault.

The short history of the Egyptian revolution has been dogged by sexualized violence, as protesters have repeatedly attacked women marching alongside them in Tahrir Square. (Al-Jazeera English)

This week, more than a year after the revolution began, fresh reports emerged of sexual assaults in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. An Associated Press reporter wrote about witnessing the assault of a one woman by a frenzied mob of nearly 200 men. Another woman had her clothes torn from her. Sexual harassment and attacks on women have reached such frequency during demonstrations that activists have started to organize protests to attempt to address the problem.

Nihal Saad Zaghloul, a protester who helped to organize one such event, told Women Under Siege that for women “things haven’t changed after the revolution. In fact, many things got worse.” She said she believes that sexual assault is used to oppress women and is “driven by power.”

“If you oppress a woman,” Zaghloul said, “you oppress generations.” But where are the men who stood alongside these women demanding change and revolution? Zaghloul said she believes that “the mass majority of the country doesn’t care about gender issues.” She describes on her blog how at a protest in Tahrir on June 2, “men started grabbing me and groping…I was terrified.” She said she knows others who were hurt much worse. She asks: “Why is it that no one is held accountable for what they do? Those men are walking freely on the streets looking for their next victim and there is nothing I can do about it.”

The short history of the Egyptian revolution has been dogged by sexualized violence. First, female protesters were targeted and abused by security forces, with shocking video footage emerging of women being dragged along the ground, stripped, and stomped on.

In a December 2011 address at Georgetown University in Washington, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton condemned the deliberate targeting of girls and women, noting that the “systematic degradation of Egyptian women dishonors the revolution.” That same month, protester Ghada Kamal was threatened with sexual assault while detained by security forces, according to Amnesty International. In a video posted to YouTube, she describes the abuse of another female protester by soldiers: “She was sprawled on the ground, surrounded by loads of soldiers. One had grabbed her by the hair, and they were going at her with sticks.”

Next came reports that female protesters detained by the army had been subjected to forced “virginity tests,” with Amnesty International reporting that a senior Egyptian general admitted to CNN that the practice was carried out to ensure the army could not be accused of rape. The assumption that only virgins can be raped, his “defense” that the women “were not like your daughter or mine” because “they had camped out in tents with male protesters.” (To read about the fight to find justice for women assaulted by these tests, click here.)

Now, in a country where women have fought alongside men to change the status quo, they face a political and social future that may leave them in an even worse situation than before. A 2008 report by the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights revealed that 83 percent of women in the country said that men had sexually harassed them—50 percent of them said it happened daily. The acceptability of the practice was overwhelmingly confirmed by the fact that only 2.4 percent said they had sought help from the police. It simply wasn’t a society in which women could speak out against oppression—because sexism and gender imbalance were so deeply ingrained into the fabric of society. And it was that oppression and imbalance that women fought alongside men to change.

But while the Egyptian power structure has changed, it is the changes demanded by men that have been achieved. It is men who have taken over the reins of control and men who are benefitting from the revolution. According to an Amnesty International report, “nothing” has been done to ensure women’s “equitable participation in decision making.”

In fact, politically, the situation for women has gone from bad to worse, with a dramatic drop in the already tiny percentage of female legislators. UN Women reports that just nine women were elected and two appointed in the 2011-2012 parliamentary elections, making up just 2 percent of the People’s Assembly. During Mubarak’s era, there was a 64-seat quota for female parliamentary representatives, according to news reports. Women, equals in the revolution, were excluded from the very committee formed to amend the constitution, and subsequent proposals included things like denying women the chance to run for presidency. According to children’s charity Plan International, proposals to reduce the legal marriage age for girls to 14 are being considered by the new parliament.

Women stood side-by-side, hand-in-hand with the men who demanded change in the revolution. Where are those men now, while women are being beaten, stripped, and sexually assaulted in the very same square? Where are the thousands who stood outraged and demanded change? Change has not transpired for women in Egypt. Perhaps some feel that they have achieved their revolution. But it’s not a revolution for those left behind.

For Women Under Siege’s analysis of how sexualized violence was used under Mubarak, please click here.