Cairo’s Tahrir Square, a place synonymous with protest since the overthrow of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak two years ago, is once again a hive of political activity. Not that you’d have known that given the theme of a number of recent news reports. No, you could be forgiven for thinking that Tahrir Square is actually a place where Arab men gather to sexually assault women.
The prompt for such a nightmarish image arrived earlier this month, when Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a report declaring that Egypt is suffering from an ‘epidemic of sexual violence’. Citing stats from anti-sexual harassment groups in Egypt, HRW claimed that ‘mobs sexually assaulted and in some cases raped at least 91 women in Tahrir Square over four days of protests’. This factoid made headlines across the world, with many reports suggesting HRW had revealed the ‘dark’, ‘hidden’ underbelly of Egypt’s protests.
Thanks to these salacious claims, it is now simply assumed that sexual violence is rife in Cairo. This has changed the way in which the protests have been conceived, reducing the protesters to either pathological oppressors or hapless victims of violence. Western commentators and NGOs are now calling for greater policing of the square, a move that will undermine the revolutionary potential of the protests.
The HRW report focuses on the extreme cases of assault. Yet of the 86 attacks confirmed by the Egyptian group Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment/Assault, thankfully only four women needed medical assistance, and one required surgery. This suggests that the most serious incidents are isolated, not endemic. Still, there’s no doubt that the accounts of assault and gang molestation are sickening. Equally, voluntary initiatives involving groups of Egyptians dedicated to pulling women out of such situations are admirable.
But in the hands of human-rights groups and the Western media, these rare incidents of sexual assault have been conflated with incidents of ogling and groping, and have been turned into evidence of a plague of sexual violence and women-hating at the heart of Egypt’s political protests. For instance, one news group produced a special feature called ‘Sexual harassment, an Egyptian disease’. CNN’s Nina Burleigh joined in the chorus of Egyptian-bashing: ‘We might not be able to do anything to stop violent, organised misogyny in far-off lands, but we can certainly stand up for our own principles and call it what it is.’ Nabila Ramdani agrees, saying ‘name-calling and random groping are now the norm [in Egypt]’, as if this so-called norm had been created by recent political developments.