The Egyptian Revolution began on January 25, 2011, with millions of Egyptians demanding the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak. The revolution, while predominantly nonviolent compared to other Arab Spring protests, saw a number of violent clashes between security forces and protesters. And that violence took on a particularly dark tint as local and international journalists and protesters alike came forward to report brutal sexual attacks.
Under the Mubarak regime, women experienced severe oppression and sexual harassment, which has continued since the president’s fall on February 11. During the early months of the revolution, the military subjected female protesters to so-called “virginity tests,” acts of sexualized violence committed against women ostensibly to prove that no other forms of sexualized violence had occurred. An unnamed general eventually admitted that the military had authorized these tests: “We didn't want them to say we had sexually assaulted or raped them, so we wanted to prove that they weren't virgins in the first place," he said. "The girls who were detained were not like your daughter or mine. These were girls who had camped out in tents with male protesters in Tahrir Square, and we found in the tents Molotov cocktails and [drugs]."
After Mubarak resigned, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), a military junta led by Mubarak's former defense minister, took over. Even as democratic elections are now taking place in stages, the SCAF is still committing sexualized violence and other human rights violations in an attempt to suppress protests. Mozn Hassan, director of Nazra for Feminist Studies, a Cairo-based research organization, told CNN: “For years, Mubarak's regime was torturing women, harassing women, detaining mothers and daughters and wives of prisoners to put pressure on them. For sure it's the culture of the SCAF."
Human Rights Watch reported that several women were arrested in November and December for peacefully protesting, and were subjected to both verbal and physical assault. These protesters were threatened with rape in detention, and stripped in the street “to deter them from protesting.” Nazra for Feminist Studies has documented cases throughout the past year that have included arbitrary detention, beatings, attempted chokings, and sexual assault and harassment, including attempts to strip women, threats of rape, insults of a sexual nature, and other kinds of degrading and inhumane treatment.
Nazra has argued that the use of sexual violence against female activists cannot be seen outside the context of attempts by the military establishment to marginalize women and prevent them from defending their rights and exercising their right to actively participate in the politics of the country at this important stage in Egypt’s history.
During 2005 protests against the regime, security forces targeted female protesters and local journalists with sexualized violence. In 2011, forces appeared to target international female journalists, with many beaten, arrested, and sexually assaulted in Egypt throughout the revolution.
American journalist Lara Logan told WMC's Women Under Siege that she “nearly died” during her sexual assault and beating on February 11; security forces broke American-Egyptian journalist Mona Eltahawy's hand and arm and violently groped her on November 23 (see her testimony below); and French journalist Caroline Sinz was also attacked by a mob on November 23. Sinz told Agence France-Presse: “I was beaten by a group of youngsters and adults who tore my clothes [and molested me in a way that] would be considered rape… .Some people tried to help me but failed… .It lasted three-quarters of an hour before I was taken out. I thought I was going to die.”
The Women’s Media Center quoted Egyptian activist and blogger Ahmed Rady as saying that SCAF is definitively behind the violence against foreign correspondents. “But they can’t do this directly,” Rady said. “So instead, they are doing it in a kind of ‘Oops, we didn’t know!’ manner. Obviously, the simplest way to deter female journalists is psychological warfare, [which can be] sexual assault.”
(Click here to read Lara Logan's first-person account of her sexual assault in Egypt.)
How Sexualized Violence is Used as a Weapon of War
To humiliate: This has been a large motivation behind sexually violent acts. In many cases, women were stripped by security forces or men in plainclothes and dragged through the streets where everyone could see them. Women who were part of the protests were reportedly called “dogs” and “whores” by the security forces, and the “virginity tests” were used to degrade female protesters through physical invasion and insult.
To instill fear and stop protests: In Egypt, the SCAF continue to use sexualized violence to force women to stop protesting out of fear for their physical safety. SCAF’s use of sexualized violence is meant to send the messages “Stay at home,” and “This is what will happen to you when you go out,” Magda Adli from the Cairo-based nonprofit El Nedeem Center for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence told the Daily News Egypt. She went on to say that such methods have been employed for the past 60 years.
To intimidate and silence the media: With female journalists experiencing what they say has been deliberate sexual attacks, it appears the military has tried to silence the messengers. In most cases, this form of violence, however, has backfired: Journalists like Mona Eltahawy and Lara Logan have been outspoken about their sexual assaults, bringing global attention to the issue.
Patterns of Violence
- Since the revolutions began, Egyptian women have suffered from sexual violence and rape at the hands of two different groups: the security forces and Egyptian civilians. Women suffer sexualized violence when they are protesting in public and when they are taken into custody by the SCAF. According to various human rights organizations, the Egyptian government and police forces have done little to nothing to try to prevent sexual assaults or to prosecute those who have committed such acts.
- Virginity tests: Security forces arrested 18 women in Tahrir Square on March 9. All of these women were subjected to “virginity tests.” Amnesty International received information that one of the 18 women who said she was a virgin, but whose test supposedly proved otherwise, was beaten and given electric shocks.
- It’s been remarkably public. Sexualized violence has occurred in full view of protesters in Tahrir Square and nearby, with the now-infamous case of a woman being stripped down to her bra and beaten symbolic of this form of assault.
A volunteer-run website called Harassmap uses crisis-mapping tools like Ushahidi to expose all forms of sexual harassment (from “ogling” to “catcalling”) throughout Egypt. While most reported harassment and violence on the website occurred in the December prior to the revolution, June and November of 2011 experienced the highest number of cases since the Arab Spring began. Rapes have increased since April 2011, according to the site, with five reported cases in November alone.
We know of a handful of sexual attacks on international journalists (listed above, as well as a couple that have not been made public) and of countless sexual attacks on protesters. Unfortunately, studies of sexual violence and harassment since the Arab Spring began have not yet been conducted or completed.
Many Egyptian women will not report cases of sexual violence for fear of stigmatization and victim-blaming—and even the fear of being raped by police. The actual numbers of women who are raped and assaulted will likely be much higher than studies will show.
Cultural Gender Attitudes
Alexandra Petri at The Washington Post noted in February that Egypt is a place where women "are not free to pass through the street without being groped and catcalled." That being said, Ursula Lindsey argues on The Daily Beast that many Egyptians “remain in denial about the extent of sexual violence and the very nature of harassment. Until recently, there was no word in Arabic for it—with people instead using the much lighter terms mu’aksa (flirting or teasing).”
A 2008 survey by the Center for Women’s Rights found that 83 percent of Egyptian women and 98 percent of foreign women in the country had experienced sexual harassment. In 2010, the United Nations Population Fund-Egypt launched an online campaign to combat sexual harassment. The campaign consisted of various questions on many popular Egyptian websites. It showed that almost half of the respondents would not take action if they witnessed harassment.
While the number of women that attend university and enter the workforce rises, women still have to contend with oppression, sexual harassment, and sexualized violence. “A woman doesn't have the right to wear what she wants, to marry who she wants, to go out in the street any time she wants,” Egyptian women’s rights activist Hala Galal told Foreign Policy magazine in March. “Small things like this show she doesn't choose her life. She's not a free person."
Egypt is ranked 120 out of 128 countries in gender equality according to the World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap. More and more women are going into public to protest, challenging traditional gender roles. Such a challenge can be threatening to the country’s conservative elements.
“It's a culture-based violence toward women,” Hassan of Nazra for Feminist Studies told CNN. “They want to exclude us from the public. The SCAF want to give the message that revolutionary people, if they are men, they are thugs; if they are women, they are sex workers and prostitutes."
On March 9, 20-year-old Salwa Hosseini was arrested for protesting in Tahrir Square:
She told Amnesty International that “after she was arrested and taken to a military prison in Heikstep, she was made, with the other women, to take off all her clothes to be searched by a female prison guard, in a room with two open doors and a window. During the strip search, Hosseini said male soldiers were looking into the room and taking pictures of the naked women. The women were then subjected to ‘virginity tests’ in a different room by a man in a white coat. They were threatened that 'those not found to be virgins' would be charged with prostitution.”
Journalist Mona Eltahawy described her beating and sexual assault to Human Rights Watch:
“They were beating me with their sticks. I lifted my left arm to protect myself but they hit that too, which is when they broke it. While they were hitting me, they were grabbing my breasts and my genital area, putting their hands into my trousers. I kept saying, 'Stop it! Stop it!' All this time they were insulting me, saying 'You whore, you daughter of…' They then pulled me by my hair toward the Ministry of Interior, still groping me whenever they could. They were like a pack of wild animals.”
Sanaa Youssef was arrested during a demonstration in November:
According to her blog, she “was in the midst of around 25 or 30 officers in CSF uniforms and plain clothes. One officer lifted his hand and said, ‘Don’t touch her.’ It was as if this was a secret code to say, ‘Do whatever you want with her.’ One of them hit me on the face and another kicked me while a third pulled me by my hair so that I couldn’t move my head to the right or left, and this helped keep my head still so that they could slap me. I wish it had stopped there, but unfortunately with great pain I have to confess that their hands did not have mercy on my body and they harassed me with all their filth and brutality and lack of conscience. What made it worse is that two of them grabbed the two ends of my scarf around my neck and pulled them in opposite directions. I felt like I was choking and tried to pull the scarf away from my throat while they were continuing to harass me.”
- Because Egypt is such a conservative society, if a woman is supposedly found to no longer be a virgin through a “virginity test,” her family could disown her or physically harm her. These women may find it hard to find a spouse; Egyptian society places a high value on virginity, and many men will not marry a non-virgin.
- Out of fear of being ridiculed, stigmatized, or sexually assaulted again by police, many women choose not to report or seek medical care for their injuries. This keeps legal remedies and psychological and medical care out of reach for many survivors.
- Egypt’s mental health care is woefully antiquated, with an asylum-based culture that may deter women from seeking psychological treatment for sexual assault.
On December 27, an Egyptian court banned virginity tests on female detainees. Samira Ibrahim, who was subjected to the test after being arrested in Tahrir Square on March 9, filed a case that led to the decision. Ibrahim told CNN that the tests were intended to "degrade the protesters.”
"The military tortured me, labeled me a prostitute and humiliated me by forcing on me a virginity test conducted by a male doctor where my body was fully exposed while military soldiers watched," she said.
Despite the positive ruling, Egyptian academic and columnist Amira Nowaira told the U.K. Guardian: "Nobody had heard of the virginity tests before so it is good a court has said they cannot be used. People should be prosecuted but it's going to be hard; even assigning blame will be difficult. Who is ultimately responsible?"
There has been talk in feminist circles in Egypt of filing lawsuits against the government for various cases of sexualized violence. “Virginity tests, sexual assaults, brutal beating, stripping, and the continuous violations of the military police against women will not hinder their perseverance in going out and demanding their rights,” Safaa Abdoun reported in the Daily News Egypt.
(Janine Zaltsman/published on February 8, 2012)
EDITOR'S NOTE: Click here for a June 8 update on the ongoing sexualized violence against women in Egypt.