CAIRO, Egypt (WOMENSENEWS)-- As turmoil and political violence obscure the view of Egypt's near-term future after the ouster of Islamist President Mohamed Morsi last week, mob attacks on female protesters expose the longstanding culture of official indifference to sexual harassment, no matter who's in charge.
"What has fueled these attacks is a culture of impunity," said Samer Muscati, a Human Rights Watch emergencies researcher based in Toronto, Canada, in an email interview. "For years and years, Egyptian authorities have failed to do anything meaningful about violence and harassment against women. We're asking Egyptian officials and political leaders across the spectrum to condemn sexual assault of women anywhere, including at protests, and that they take immediate steps to address the problem, including effective investigations and prosecutions of attackers."
After more than 168 sexual assaults, several of which were severe and involved rape, on female protesters in Cairo since the end of June, the nation's military and members of the transitional government have been silent.
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Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment-Assault, a volunteer organization whose aim is to rescue women being attacked during demonstrations, intervened in over 50 mob assaults in and around the capital's iconic Tahrir Square on July 3 alone. Two of the incidents involved rape, while seven of the women targeted required medical attention, with one being hospitalized.
"The attacks during the past week have been horrific but they did not come out of nowhere," said Muscati. "Unfortunately sexual harassment and violence in Egypt is a daily occurrence and for years the government has not done anything meaningful to curtail it. The mob violence against women highlights the complete failure of the government and all political parties to face up to the violence that women in Egypt experience on a daily basis in public spaces."
Human Rights Watch has documented these types of attacks for more than a year. The organization produced a video uploaded July 2 on YouTube to shed light on the increasing prevalence of sexual assault and violence aimed at female demonstrators, featuring some of the women who have been brutally attacked and raped.
Muscati visited Cairo to help produce the HRW video, which is meant to give Egyptian women a chance to tell their stories, but also prevent officials from sweeping the issue under the rug.
"Only after Egyptian authorities and the public acknowledge that these abuses are happening, can steps be taken to effectively address the problem," added Muscati.
However, getting the attention of officials right now won't be easy for women's rights activists amid days of deadly clashes between Pro-Morsi supporters, police and military soldiers. Deciding whom to talk to is another problem, with Egypt's political factions at odds once again over political office nominations and threatening the transitional government's fragile foundation
Hoping that Morsi's ouster heralded the end of Islamist moves to promote women in solely traditional gender roles may also be premature. The Salafi Nour Party, which supports a more conservative interpretation of Islam, has emerged as a political force. Although its members do not have legislative powers, it has succeeded in blocking left-leaning Mohamed ElBaradei's appointment as prime minister.
In response, the Egyptian Feminist Union has called on authorities to appoint seven female ministers last week as part of efforts to include women in the decision making. It also asked that minorities and political factions not be marginalized.
Meanwhile, some are hoping the rewriting of Egypt's constitution, which was suspended when Morsi was forced out, could mean a new era of women's freedoms since it did little to enshrine women's rights or their protection. However, others worry there is also a chance that women could lose out should less modern interpretations of Sharia law, supported by parties like Salafi Nour, be added.
Public Victim Blaming
In a July 3 report on its website condemning the attacks, women's group Nazra for Feminist Studies wrote that members of the country's Human Rights Committee had publically blamed assault victims in recent months, saying they deserved to be targeted for taking to the streets.
"Statements [like these] send clear signals that … demonstrations are safe spaces for committing the most violent of crimes and enjoying impunity afterwards," said Nazra.
Rebecca Chiao, one of the founders of HarassMap, a nonprofit that collects data about harassment cases online as well as organizes community awareness and outreach programs, said increased violence of late has made it even more difficult for women to make their voices heard.
"Sexual harassment and assault is so pervasive at this point in Egypt that it seriously limits women's participation in public life," she said in an email interview.
HarassMap, a member OpAntiSH, the volunteer-staffed larger anti-harassment and assault organization, has launched a crowd funding drive for a large-scale, nationwide media campaign asking everyday Egyptians to stop ignoring sexual harassment.
"According to the volunteers who are in the intervention teams, out of the 50-100 attackers in each mob attack, maybe five of them are paid thugs and the rest are opportunistic normal bystanders who are joining in," said Chiao. "So HarassMap believes that the most effective way to stop the mob assaults in the long term is to work with bystanders and all of society to stop accepting this, to stop staying silent or joining in, and to intervene to stop it."
Despite the fears of attacks, many women refused to stand idle. Online Egyptian magazine 19TwentyThree spoke to some of those who went to Tahrir Square and the presidential palace recently.
"Of course they all had real concerns and so did their families," Nadine El Sayed, the magazine's cofounder and managing editor, said over email. "But there was a real need to overcome that fear and protest anyway. It was also a matter of not letting anyone [suppress] their voices because many felt harassment is used by political powers to scare women away from the streets."