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Monday, December 3, 2012

Activists Tackle Sexual Harassment in Tahrir

Now that Egypt's opposition has returned to the streets, activists are making a renewed effort to confront the problem of sexual harassment and assaults against women who take part in demonstrations.

Leaving aside earlier concerns that publicizing assaults would tarnish the reputation of the revolutionaries in Cairo's Tahrir Square, about 100 activists from two new groups, @OpAntiSH and @TahrirBodyguard, gathered on Monday evening at the office of The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights to coordinate their efforts to combat a pervasive social problem and defend women from their attackers.

As Wendell Steavenson reported in The New Yorker last month, the brief period of immunity from sexual harassment enjoyed by women in Tahrir Square during the first weeks of the revolution last year seemed to end just as the protesters forced the country's dictator to stand down.

Throug hout what Egyptians now call the “eighteen days” - from the first demonstrations, on January 25, 2011, until Mubarak's fall, on February 11th - Tahrir Square appeared to be a mixed and tolerant utopia. Cosmopolitan girls wearing Dolce & Gabbana sunglasses stood next to bearded Muslim Brotherhood men and to women in full niqab. People marvelled that women slept each night on the square and that there was not a single reported instance of sexual harassment. But things soon changed. The night that Mubarak fell, Lara Logan, a CBS News reporter, was sexually assaulted by a mob on Tahrir, and many women reported similar experiences. Heba Morayef, who was groped on the square at the time, told me, “From that moment, the square was not safe in the same way, and you saw, over the following year, a deterioration in terms of risk for women.”

Sexual harassment is endemic in Egypt. According to a 2008 survey, sixty per cent of Egyptian men admit to having sexually harassed a woman, and every Egyptian woman I met had a harassment story. I asked each woman I talked to how she dealt with it. Morayef said, “If I'm on my own, I don't confront it. I've seen how situations in the square can get tricky.”

As part of the effort to help women who got surrounded by gangs of men, activists have started to set up watchtowers in Tahrir Square, to allow volunteers to see harassment taking place.