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Op-Ed

Fear and loathing in Egypt

The promise of the revolution is at risk as sexual assaults increase.

February 10, 2013|By Reem Abdellatif
  • Women gather to denounce sexual violence and harassment against women in Cairo, Egypt.
Women gather to denounce sexual violence and harassment against women… (Virginie Nguyen Hoang /…)

When I walk into Tahrir Square alone these days, carrying my notebook, I try to remain calm, act like I belong and move with the cascading crowds.

If you seem scared or intimidated, they smell your fear.

Like other female reporters, I have grown accustomed to being constantly on guard while doing my job. But that can't guarantee safety. Sexual assaults on women protesters — and journalists — have become commonplace in Cairo.

In late January, the United Nations strongly urged the Egyptian government to act, saying it had received 25 reports of assaults on women in Tahrir Square in a single week — 19 of them in a single day. One young woman was hospitalized with lacerations after being raped with a sharp object. Witnesses described bite marks all over the woman's body.

Earlier this month, a public gang rape of two young women in Tahrir Square was caught on video. Dozens of men surrounded the women like they were pieces of meat. Some men who tried to help were also sexually assaulted. The victims said the attack against them was very systematic, almost as if it had been planned.

This week, a report from Amnesty International concluded that the government's failure to aggressively pursue perpetrators of the harassment "has fueled violent attacks against women in the vicinity of Tahrir Square."

Every day on the job, I wonder: "Is today my turn?" As a journalist, my job is to remain neutral and objective. But, as a woman in Egypt, simply being out in society and doing my job might be considered an act of rebellion and resistance.

There are times when I move through the crowds of men wishing I didn't speak Arabic or that I could cover my ears. Maybe if I couldn't hear them, I would be spared their uninvited remarks about my breasts and my body.

Intellectually, I know that such men are acting out against women because they view us as weaker. But when I'm alone, I sometimes wonder: "Did I do something subconsciously to deserve their harassment?" That is how it works with abuse.

I remind myself often that I'm a journalist. My job is not only to hear but to listen. As an Egyptian woman, I know that a renaissance boils beneath the surface. Despite violence and repression, women are half the population, and they are mobilizing.

When the Egyptian uprising began, it appeared that society would be more open to women's advancement and to discussing the roots of violence against women. But we are still far from that point.

It will take time, but the fear barrier is bound to give way.

Since Islamist President Mohamed Morsi came into power last June, many women have started to feel that their core freedoms could be threatened by political Islam, and this has spurred working women, single mothers, activists and artists to break taboos and push society's boundaries.

Growing protests of discontent, led by women of all ages and backgrounds, have swept across the nation from the Mediterranean city of Alexandria to Morsi's palace walls.

The world got a glimpse of the struggle Egyptian women face in December 2012, when a brave girl was stripped of her veil and clothes — down to her blue bra — in the middle of Tahrir Square. This was done not by simple ruffians but by Egyptian soldiers during a protest demanding an end to military rule after Hosni Mubarak's ouster.

It took time for the world to realize that this kind of attack wasn't a rare occurrence. But Egyptian women knew.

The intolerable treatment of women in Egypt long predates Morsi's rule. I was first attacked at age 16 by a group of random teenage boys looking for fun in the coastal city of Alexandria. I'll never forget their faces as they made a game out of groping me. I wept in the street.

Things are bound to get worse before they get better. The country's leadership supports all sorts of vague laws that deny women full equality. Morsi, who is part of the Muslim Brotherhood, must appease an ultra-conservative Islamist base that won't welcome improving conditions for women.

Now in Egypt, women face more men who won't look them in the eye during a conversation. Some self-proclaimed Islamists have agreed to be interviewed by me but refused to look at me directly or even turn their faces toward me. They believe that looking at a women's face is sinful and invites sexual desire.

Yet one fact can't be overlooked: Almost 40% of Egyptian women are the sole breadwinners in their households. Many have had to overcome domestic abuse, sexual assault and poverty.

If the uprisings in the Middle East have taught us anything, it is that women won't be left out of the increasing freedoms. And that is true in Egypt as well. Instead of yielding to intimidation, women have come back in greater numbers, filling the streets with calls for change. Someday, those calls are likely to be heard.

Reem Abdellatif is a special correspondent for The Times in Cairo.

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