Feb 20, 2013

Sexual Violence in Egypt: Can Men Protect Us?

This is an anti-sexual harassment artwork made by Egyptian graffiti artist Ganzeer. The artwork represents a typical male narrative of sexual violence. The sentence reads: “Are you a man or an assaulting animal?”
Many of the so-called revolutionaries thought it was not the right time to talk about gender equality, that women gain rights as the political struggle proceeds, and that the gender-related issues raised are pushed by western-liberal propaganda. Many times, I thought the incidents of sexual harassment in Egypt were exaggerated or too few.
When I first read reports on ‘gang rape’ in Tahrir square last year, I dismissed them thinking they are only rumors by the many weird Egyptian websites and ‘yellow newspapers.’ In the past few months though, Egyptian women screamed loudly enough to mobilize themselves and others around the world to protest sexual violence.
Last year, the anti-sexual harassment march was attacked in Cairo and it was discouraging to organize another one. This year, harassment is no longer the appropriate word because it is rightly replaced with sexual violence as we see videos of gang rapes happening on the margins of massive marches.
Weeks ago, Egyptian blogger Wael Abbas tweeted a scene of Egyptian women getting searched before entering the book fair. Many of them turned in knives; a scene that tells us about the kind of reality Egyptian women have adapted themselves to. Shortly after, we saw women marching with knives in Cairo threatening to play the game of violence if necessary.

Do Not Dehumanize
Those dozens of men touching, stripping, grabbing, and fingering a woman publicly are not ‘just animals.’ This is not just ‘being horny.’ This act of shameless public gang rape is, above all, a show of masculinity, an attempt to dominate sexually. When you watch these videos on YouTube, many of those men do not feel ashamed or even try to hide. This also tells us how the Egyptian state – which does not really exist – never bothers to track those rapists. In fact, as we have seen, the Shura council blames women for taking to the streets and thus being sexually attacked. This only assures the long state-organized practice against Egyptian women to depoliticize them and exclude them from the public space.
The ‘Good Men’ are Wrong
What do the ‘good men’ do in reaction? They are too late in the conversation and are not aware enough of the discourse needed to conquer this issue. Men do not realize that it is all about patriarchy, that it can no longer be blamed on ‘state thugs’ only.
They also have no right to speak of women staying home than risking their bodies in public. The state is patriarchal, the army is patriarchal, the Ikhwan are patriarchal; female presence in public space hits those structures in the heart. It is not about gender, it is about patriarchy. When state police tortures political prisoners, they rape both men and women. It is patriarchal violence.
In the videos, the ‘good men’ scream: “يا جدعان ما يصحش كده، عيب كده يا جدعان” which can be translated to “guys this is not right, this is a shame guys.” Basically, the whole objection is centered on morality, manhood, and masculinity. One of those frequent masculine attempts of good faith is seen in the way male groups try to surround women protesters. The campaign against sexual harassment made the best comment on this:RT: @OpAntiSH: We do NOT take part in any cordon around demos (especially male-cordon) because we see it counterproductive to what we fight for.
Poke the Society
Those males do not understand that this is not just a state-related issue but a socio-political one. Those who practice sexual violence, whether at protests or elsewhere, need to be stopped by everyone. If women show solidarity with others against any sexual attack, this will gradually end the passivity of society against assaulters. If men stop thinking about this issue in terms of men-to-men-clash, this can be a step towards a better understanding of the female body in public space.
The fact that a woman like Yasmine al-Barmawi was brave enough to break all social and political taboos and tell her story shows us the urgency of the issue.
Those sexual assaulters are not animals, they are men. This is not about sexual repression only; it is about patriarchy in its climax. Women do not need your strong body to protect them; they want you to march side by side with them. Throughout this ongoing revolution, female presence at protests has been used as a card to prove the ‘immorality’ of protesters. The point is not to prove how ‘moral’ those women are or how segregated the space is. The point is to normalize the existence of women in public space. This needs to happen in the street, in the square, and, more importantly, in the mind.

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