CAIRO — In the weeks after a group of men surrounded and sexually assaulted her in Cairo’s iconic Tahrir Square, Yasmine Faithi has returned repeatedly to the place where the nearly hourlong attack began.
She’s retraced her steps from where the crowd of men insisted they were there to protect her even as they ripped off her clothes and groped and tore at every inch of her body. She’s walked past the spot where her attackers told those who were trying to help her that she was wearing a bomb – to keep them away. She’s ended up where a woman, accompanied by a group of men, finally rescued her.
All the while, she’s stared at the faces in the square. Were her attackers still here? Could she retaliate somehow?
“I needed to see where I was and understand and believe what happened,” Faithi said. “I still have the need to go again and again. Maybe my mind needs proof” that the assault really happened.
Tahrir Square is where Egyptians rose up against the regime of Hosni Mubarak more than two years ago. It was a very different time. That there were so few sexual assaults, many hoped, was a sign of a more progressive, democratic Egypt. Whole families came to the square then – mothers, fathers and children – to bask in the energy of the people power that in just 18 days ended three decades of Mubarak rule.
No more. Now every demonstration in Tahrir – and they happen weekly – seethes with likely sexual violence. Faithi, along with at least 18 other women, was assaulted there Jan. 25 – during a demonstration to celebrate the beginning of the anti-Mubarak protests. Now women enter the square with trepidation.
Sexual assault has always been a part of an Egyptian women’s experience – on buses, on the streets and at the scenes of large celebrations. But since the anti-Mubarak uprising there have been two distinct brands of sexual assault: what happens in Tahrir Square and what happens everywhere else.
Outside the square, men put lemons in their pockets and rub up against women in crowded spaces, such as packed buses, to test their reactions. If the women don’t protest, they rub against them with their genitals. If the women object, the other men on the bus call them crazy. Crowds that gather in the street after a major soccer victory or the end of Ramadan grope women in what’s considered a form of celebration. Taxi drivers expose themselves to female passengers. Other drivers grab women’s breasts as they walk by in traffic-crowded streets.
At Tahrir, however, sexual assault is a form of organized warfare that starts when the sun sets. The attacks are sophisticated and violent.
When women started taking men with them to Tahrir for protection, the attackers figured out ways to separate them. When anti-sexual harassment groups emerged, men started donning the group’s vests to pretend they were there to help. When women screamed for help, men shouted over them so no one could hear their pleas. When women started speaking out about such attacks, the government said it was the women who were at fault.
In the last few weeks, a new permutation has occurred: Attackers are using razor blades to cut women’s breasts and genitals.
The attackers appear increasingly organized: One man is assigned to rip off a woman’s pants, another, her top. Then they maneuver her to the dark streets outside the square. There, the attackers surround the woman, keeping away anyone who tries to help her.
According to Operation Stop Sexual Harassment, a newly formed group of volunteers that scans the crowds for attacks, there were 19 attacks on Jan. 25 alone. In all of 2011, only 30 such attacks were reported.
“We try to get the girl before she dies,” said Engy Ghozlan, a member of the group and a co-founder of Harassment Map, which marks each reported attack. The dots pepper the entire nation.
A year ago, women rarely spoke about such attacks, out of fear of shaming themselves and their families. The issue was seen as isolated, and reported as such: There was the one woman who was the first to prosecute her harassers. There was the woman who was subjected to a government-sanctioned virginity test after her attack.
Now scores of women have come forward. Faithi has appeared on television, and dozens of others have shared what happened to them in graphic detail online and in interviews.
They include Salma, who was attacked Jan. 25 while she was trying to rescue another woman.
“I forgot all of the advice that I had learned in our group. I forgot that I needed to stay calm and that my screaming attracted them even more. The more I screamed, the more savagely they attacked me,” she wrote on an anti-sexual harassment website.
“Right in front of me, I saw someone – I remember the way he looked, less than 20 years old and short and with the utmost savagery – cutting my sweater and cutting my bra and stripping it off of me. He kept grabbing my breasts, and at the same time people were violating my body everywhere.”
“I was so disgusted and felt sick. I felt like I was going to pass out. I was really scared I was going to fall to the ground. The shoving and the hands multiplied, and suddenly I stopped screaming, I couldn’t breathe and I got really dizzy, and I was afraid I was going to fall down and die,” she wrote.
There’s no profile for a potential victim. A woman in her 70s, separated from her daughter, is among the victims, Ghozlan said. So are women who were fully covered in the black floor-length garb known as a niqab.
Faithi said that despite the threat of violence she felt compelled to go back to Tahrir. There can be no real revolution in Egypt unless women are protected, she said. Despite the risk, they must will it to happen.
“I know it is something different from participating in a protest. It is something very personal,” Faithi said. “I go to protests with a different urge.”
Their loud defiance makes the government’s silence deafening.
Egypt’s first democratically elected president, Mohammed Morsi, has yet to speak about the issue. Nor have the police or the Ministry of Interior, which oversees the security forces. Prime Minister Hesham Kandil proposed a new law against such crimes, but the legislation lies dormant. Adel Afify, a member of the parliament’s upper chamber, the Shura Council, and an adherent of the conservative Asala Party, blames the victims. “By getting herself involved in such circumstances, the woman bears 100 percent responsibility,” he said.
There have been no reported convictions of men who assaulted women in the square. The silence, Amnesty International charged in a report earlier this year, "has fueled violent attacks against women in the vicinity of Tahrir Square."
Women here say they have little faith that the government could stop the attacks anyway. In a nation where the government can’t stop protesters from defying curfew, can’t protect the presidential palace or even pick up the trash, such a pervasive problem is simply beyond its reach. Others suspect the government is sponsoring the assaults as a means to keep women from protesting.
“It’s a way to stop a second revolution,” said Enas Mekkawi, a women’s rights activist. “They are trying to stop 50 percent or more of the activists.”
The result is an emerging vigilante movement, with women arming themselves with pepper spray and their men on edge anytime they enter the square, looking for those who’d push them away in order to go after their wives and girlfriends.
“It is getting worse day by day,” Mekkawi said. “The government doesn’t protect women at all. We are living in a failed state.”
Mohammed Diab produced the only Egyptian movie that deals strictly with sexual harassment. He titled it “678,” an upward count of an increasing problem. The movie, released a month before the 2011 uprising against Mubarak began, chronicles three women and their fight against harassment. Inspired by the 2005 case of the first women to bring charges against an attacker, Diab interviewed victims and attackers alike. It was an eye-opening experience for him.In a culture where women are encouraged to be silent, he was stunned to learn how many friends had been assaulted, he said. There are many reasons to keep quiet: Faithi remembers her rescuers asking her whether her virginity had been taken during the assault; they knew it would make it harder for her marry.
“If something like that happened to me, it would be the center of my life. And yet I never knew,” Diab said.
In a 2009 Gallup poll, Egypt was ranked one of the world’s most religious nations, perhaps in part because Islamists represented the only organized alternative to the Mubarak regime. Here, even men cannot have sex until marriage. With an increasingly failing economy, that often means they don’t have sex until their 30s at the earliest, when they – Christians and Muslims alike – finally can provide for wives.
Diab, who says he was a virgin until he married at 32, said he’d tried to explain what was behind such attacks. In his movie, he shows young boys exposed to an increasingly sexualized society through music videos and the like amid sexual frustration. As the three women featured in the movie tell their stories, someone always blames them for the attacks. He shows police officers who urge the women not to bring shame to their families by reporting the assaults.
While Diab was filming a scene of a couple in the streets as a real soccer-victory celebration was taking place, the actress was attacked, and he couldn’t save her. Afterward, she said: “Please don’t tell anyone. My father will not let me act again.”
Diab recalled interviewing a man in his 40s who was still a virgin, too poor to provide for a wife. The man, an admitted harasser, expressed no regret at what he’d done. “He doesn’t know this touch could change a person’s life. He tells himself she liked it,” Diab said.
In 2005, female journalists covering major anti-Mubarak protests were groped, a point that many activists cite as the start of attacks on women by the government. But Diab thinks that blaming the government is a means for society to absolve itself of responsibility for its role in the rise of such attacks.
A central figure in the movie is Nelly, whose fiance stands by her when she files the first case against such an attacker.
Diab went on to name his first-born child Nelly, who’s now 18 months old, in the hopes that she, too, will inspire strength in Egyptian women one day.
“What we really need is a society to speak out against this,” he said.
McClatchy special correspondent Amina Ismail contributed to this report.
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