Is sexual assault really endemic in Egypt?
Claims that Egypt is infected by the 'disease' of misogyny are helping to boost the state's authority there.
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.
It’s odd. In the extraordinary and volatile situation in Egypt, where many people have been killed by the army in recent days, and men have been stabbed and thrown off buildings, it is sexual violence that suddenly seems to have become the focal point for HRW and media commentators. And the figures can seem confusing. For example, a Guardian headline trumpeted a figure of ‘80 assaults in one day’, while the Daily Mail came up with ‘91 [assaults] in just four days’. Another article pointed to ‘more than 100 attacks on women just this month’.
But is this really an epidemic? The figures themselves, which vary between publications, no doubt make for good headlines. But they don’t tell us very much. Sweden, with the same population as that of Cairo, recorded 16,700 sexual assault cases last year – that’s 183 cases in four days. Even if you isolate the rape and serious assault cases, that still amounts to 25 cases a day. Or as a publicity-seeking headline might put it: ‘100 sexual assaults every four days in Sweden.’
The reports from Egypt do not even break down the rather slippery stats into distinct offences. They just bundle up everything from groping to rape in a single category of sexual assault. That lack of precision is itself telling: details and context do not matter when the motivation is to campaign, to morally crusade, rather than simply report the facts.
The effect of this Western-led campaigning is wholly anti-democratic: it potentially reinforces state authority in Egypt at a time when some Egyptian people are trying to challenge it. For example, HRW has been calling for improved law enforcement, even appealing to the Egyptian state for strategies, reforms and intervention. Police forces, HRW says, have stayed away from Tahrir Square during the bigger protests, and have left women protesters unprotected. In picking up the mantle for oppressed Egyptian women, HRW is effectively demanding greater state control over the unruly protesters. HRW wants the Egyptian state to manage and regulate Egyptians’ political struggle, not satisfied, it seems, that that is exactly what the military has now done through its disastrous coup.
Rights activists lament that women are not seen as equal political participants in Egypt. According to the deputy Middle East director at HRW, these assaults are holding back women from participating fully in the public life of Egypt ‘at a critical point in the country’s development’. But, ironically, in focusing on the particular experience of women protesters, HRW is stripping them of their identity as citizens. Egyptian women are simply seen as members of an oppressed group.
The incidents of sexual violence during the protests are deplorable. But the opportunistic reporting of these incidents in order to paint a picture of a uniquely diseased society, thrown out of control by recent events, is equally dismal. This attempt to ‘give a voice’ to the oppressed through awareness-raising and justice-seeking is not doing any favours to Egyptian protesters. And that goes for both women and men.
Sadhvi Sharma is a PhD student at the Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.
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