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Sexual violence - the dark side of the revolution

This week alone, 91 women became victims of sexual assault over four days during the protests, says Human Rights Watch. Many women are breaking their silence at last. But it's a long battle.

On Friday (05.07.2013), violence in Egypt escalated again – nationwide, 30 people were killed and more than 1070 wounded, according to Egypt's Ministry of Health. Supporters and opponents of ousted President Mohammed Morsi continue to fight the battle over their country's future – the vast majority of them are men.

Nihal Saad Zaghloul (Photo: Nihal Saad Zaghloul)

Nihal Saad Zaghloul: "My body is mine"

"The more we patrol and the more we fight for women's rights the more counteracts there are from harassers and rapists," Nihal Saad Zaghloul explained as the reason why she decided not to go to Tahrir square on Friday night. "It is dangerous."

The 27-year-old Egyptian doesn't want to be exposed to the danger again that has been dubbed the ‘dark side of the Egyptian revolution.' She herself became a victim of assault when walking with friends through Tahrir square in 2012. It was a traumatic experience – but she decided to take up the battle. Nihal Saad Zaghloul, an IT programmer, co-founded the group 'Bassma', which means 'imprint'. It's a group whose aim is to raise awareness that sexual harassment has been a part of daily life in Egypt for far too long – and that it has to stop.

Gang rapes during demonstrations

Human rights groups are alarmed: The number of women who have become victims of brutal assaults during the protests in Egypt has been rising. The women are beaten up or raped, and more often than not several men are involved – some victims say as many as 100 men were present. The assaults can last anywhere from a few minutes to several hours. According to Human Rights Watch, over a period of four days this week, 91 women became victims of sexual harassment during the protests that led to the ousting of President Morsi. And these figures are just the reported cases.

In a video Human Rights Watch published this week, Hania Moheeb describes how for her a peaceful demonstration on Tahrir Square turned into a nightmare a few months ago. "They made a very tight circle around me, they started moving their hands all over my body, they touched every inch of my body, and violated every inch of my body. I was so much traumatized I was only screaming at the time."

Hundreds of women have gone through similar experiences since the beginning of the uprising – both Egyptians and foreigners. The case of South African CBS correspondent Lara Logan who was reporting about the demonstrations from Tahrir Square in early 2011 first put the topic on the agenda worldwide, when Logan herself became the victim of a brutal gang rape.

Culprits are not held accountable

Since November 2011, the police have been absent from Tahrir Square during large-scale demonstrations to avoid clashes with protesters. There is no protection for female demonstrators, and men who rape women know that nothing will happen to them. The police will not follow up on their cases, according to Human Rights Watch.

Protesters opposing Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi take part in a protest demanding that Mursi resign at Tahrir Square in Cairo (Photo: Reuters/ Mohamed Abd El Ghany)

The culprits make use of their anonymity in crowded places like Tahrir Square in Cairo

It's a vacuum that a few rescue squads have been trying to fill. Volunteers patrol protest areas to provide minimum protection to female demonstrators. But Tahrir Bodyguard and OpAntiSH (Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment), the two biggest groups, on Friday decided to refrain from joining the protest areas – to protect their volunteers, as they said on Twitter. More often than not, the volunteers themselves are wounded on the ground when trying to prevent assaults or evacuate the victims.

"It's extremely frustrating and depressing," Nihal Saad Zaghloul told DW. Many activistis from her own group Bassma often join in the patrolling activities organized by Tahrir Bodyguard or OpAntiSH. "But we get a lot of feedback saying it's good what you do. So it is frustrating but it's also a push for us to continue because now we know the problem more and we understand it more every day."

Not much attention

The problem goes back a long time, said Zaghloul. It partly stems from the oppression in Egypt's society under Mubarak. "It's only natural that if men are oppressed they oppress what they view as weaker, and in this case it is women." It's a vicious circle that has engrained itself deeply in Egyptian society.

Egyptian women shout slogans against the President Mohamed Morsi (Photo: EPA/Andre Pain)

An increasing number of Egyptian women speak out against violence

Under Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, nothing changed. General Adel Afifi, a Salafist member of the Shura Council, Egypt's legislative body, said in February 2012: "Women contribute 100-percent in rape because they put themselves in such circumstances." He was referring to cases of female protesters who had been raped.

But activist Nihal Saad Zaghloul told DW it was unfair to blame Morsi and Islamists alone for violence against women. "He made a lot of mistakes and he was not paying much attention to women's rights, but none of the previous regimes actually did anything for women's rights."

She didn't want to comment on claims that the Muslim Brotherhood had paid thugs to rape and beat up women to deter them from taking part in demonstrations and political life. "There's no proof. I can't make accusations because there's no proof."

Get men involved

Nihal Saad Zaghloul refuses to play the blame game and instead focuses on awareness campaigns she organizes with her group Bassma. At the moment, Bassma are planning a large-scale campaign with posters in buses, schools and kindergardens informing people about women's rights and why violence against women has to stop. "I see a lot of women standing up everyday, struggling for their rights and not giving it up. Our movement keeps growing. More and more people are rejecting it, and several news outlets are talking about it, which was never the case before," the activist told DW.

In her own group Bassma, Nihal Saad Zaghloul finds it important that male activists are involved – in fact, the majority of Bassma are men. "Once you decide to include men and say okay, feminism or defending women's rights is no longer an exclusive right for women then you have a lot of men who want to join in," she said. "They have mothers, they have sisters, and they truly believe that women are human beings."

Nihal Saad Zaghloul believes that in Egypt, an important learning process has been kicked off alongside the revolution – with women, but above all with men. And still, she has no illusions: "It takes time. Change takes time."

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