Walk Like an Egyptian Woman

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After the sexual assault that took place during the Sisi inaugural celebrations in Tahrir last week, a group of people, horrified by and fed up with sexual harassment in Egypt, were granted a protest permit to hold a stand titled “Walk Like an Egyptian Woman” in the Opera Square near downtown Cairo. The protest law was enacted shortly after the July 3 coup to put an end to anti-coup protests and also to have a legal basis, albeit a shoddy one, to disperse/arrest/kill protestors who broke that law.

The protest was scheduled for 5PM – 8PM. Shortly before I arrived around 6, two people were arrested for creating signs that protested the Interior Ministry’s history of sexual harassment. The two weren’t even able to hold their sign up – they were arrested right away. At least one other person, a taxi driver driving by, was arrested for sexual harassment. He allegedly catcalled a protestor and said “we’ll still do whatever we want to you.”

I did see one woman holding a sign that said “The Interior Ministry harassed me,” and although she got into a fight with fellow protestors, she was not arrested. She did, however, leave.

The protestors were well outnumbered by riot police and security, and even amongst the protestors there were a good amount of non-Egyptians there.

One British woman I met was holding a sign that said “Justice for Samira Ibrahim in the Case Against Virginity Tests.” In 2011, the military sought to protect itself from rape allegations by subjecting female protestors to “virginity tests.” These “tests” were not only physically and mentally painful, but lacked any scientific basis since virginity cannot actually be tested for. Samira Ibrahim, one of the women who was given a virginity test, took the Egyptian military to court. She lost the case, but the courage it took to stand up to the military and choose not to be ashamed by what was not her fault is a huge step towards women’s rights in Egypt.

When I talked to the woman holding the sign after the stand, she said, “Writing a direct anti-police or anti-army or antigovernment sign will get you arrested (as proven by the arrests of two people today carrying signs reminding us of the harassing nature of Egypt’s Interior Ministry). It’s especially stupid for me as a foreigner to do that as it plays into the state’s narrative of ‘foreign hands’ fomenting chaos and instability and haram western ways. So I had to find a more subtle way of saying ‘screw you lying a**holes. Your words are empty, you abuse women every day. Do something to show you’ve changed.’ I guess I succeeded as I haven’t been arrested…yet! ”

One man approached her with a camcorder asking her to talk about harassment in Egypt (he also wanted to find out where she was really from, but she wouldn’t tell him). He was visibly unhappy when within her argument, she said that the military and police force also harass women. He tried correcting her, saying perhaps it was the young men in the security force who “don’t know” that it’s the wrong thing to do, and staunchly defended the military and police. (Side note: never tell a woman she’s wrong about who’s harassing her).

I watched another argument between two women. One insisted on full women’s rights while shouting praises for Sisi. The other insisted on limited women’s rights with no mention of Sisi. The second woman agreed that while men should not rape, women needed to dress in less revealing clothes. Several others got involved in the argument including one young man who said his mother wears a niqab and still gets harassed on the streets of Egypt. The entire argument was ridiculous because rights are rights no matter what you do or don’t wear, but what really caught my attention was the group of police officers standing about a foot away, listening, and nodding in agreement with the woman who said women must dress more modestly.

Egypt still has a long way to go in eradicating sexual violence. But this is a start.

Comments

  1. Raychel Schwartz says:

    Hello – Thanks for writing about this!

    This reminds me of a story from Half the Sky by WuDunn and Kristof – they interviewed a woman recovering from domestic abuse. She recounts her horrific story but says that men should beat their wives. She says her husband was wrong because she was a good wife, but disobedient wives should be beaten. This is a problem that spans the world – categorizing women into those who ‘deserve’ violence for not being what a woman ‘should’ be and good women, who conform to whatever standard. Yet the moment a woman is abused/attacked/etc she is moved into the category of wayward women so that we can blame her.

    I’ve enjoyed reading your blogs; it sounds like you’re getting some great learning done.

  2. Sarah Volz says:

    I really enjoyed reading this blog post – it was well written, and you bring up several interesting points. At the beginning, you mention that two women were arrested for the signs they were holding, but that the police also arrested a taxi driver for harassment. It was an interesting example, because while the women are not permitted to freely protest, the police were not willfully blind to all the harassment the protestors were experiencing (at least in this particular instance). Was the arrest of that taxi driver unusual, or is harassment a crime that is punished?
    I also found your review of the discussion about women’s rights at the end. I think you captured the complexity of the situation as well as possible in such a succinct manner. Each of the people you mention represent a different viewpoint on a very important situation. There is discord among women and between women and men, but there are also supporters of both sexes for each opinion. It’s easy for the media and foreigners to simplify the situation to “every man oppresses every woman” and see the simple divide between the sexes, but you provide a nice overview of some of the real-life complexities in working to establish gender equality.
    Thank you for the interesting blog post and for researching such an important topic!