Sarah Goodyear is a Brooklyn-based contributing writer to CityLab. She's written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog.
A group called Tahrir Bodyguard is trying to keep women safe, but their task is proving more difficult than ever.
As yet another wave of street protests sweep through Egypt and the government is once again in crisis, women who turn out for the demonstrations, especially in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, are vulnerable to sexual attacks, as they have been since the earliest days of the Arab Spring.
In the last four days, "mobs sexually assaulted and in some cases raped at least 91 women in Tahrir Square ... amid a climate of impunity," according to a representative of Human Rights Watch.
In some cases, the attacks were life-threatening:
In Tahrir Square, where hundreds of thousands of protesters had gathered throughout the day, mobs assaulted and gang raped at least 46 women, according to reports received by the group Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment. Several of the women needed medical assistance, with one requiring surgery after being raped with a sharp object, a member of the group said. Security forces were absent from the Tahrir Square area that day.
A group called Tahrir Bodyguard is on the front lines, but their task is proving more difficult than ever.
Tahrir Bodyguard describes itself as “a non-political/non-partisan group of men & women working on empowering women, raising awareness, & ground intervention to end all forms of sexual harassment.” This group of volunteers, formed by Soraya Bahgat in 2011, is trained to prevent and respond to instances of harassment and violence. They wear bright yellow vests and hardhats to identify themselves and travel in groups, intervening when they see a woman in trouble.
Over the last couple of days, the job is more and more complex, as growing chaos in the streets has provided cover for sexual predators. According to some accounts from Twitter, some of these men are now claiming to be members of Tahrir Bodyguard in order to win their victims’ trust. “Women of Tahrir, plz do not trust anyone without our full uniform -yellow helmet &neon yellow vest- and is in a group of at least 8 or more,” the group warned today on Twitter.
Tahrir Bodyguard is not the only organization in Egypt using grassroots techniques to combat sexual violence. HarassMap gives women a place to report harassment and assault using mobile phones on a system powered by Frontline SMS and Ushahidi, an open-source crowd-sourcing platform developed in 2008 to respond to post-election violence in Kenya. It has since been used in disaster response and community-building efforts around the world.
HarassMap uses the technology to build awareness of the sexual harassment problem in Egypt:
Our community action volunteers always bring a copy of the map with them out into their neighborhoods: the map and the eye witness stories documented on it help them show that harassment does in fact happen on their very streets. People are often shocked and angered when they realize how common harassment really is, that it happens on their streets and to all kinds of people, and that it involves everything from ogling to groping and more.
In a nation where this kind of experience is the norm, women who dare to protest in the streets are often accused of shameless behavior that invites assault. Authorities are slow to respond, or dismissive of women’s reports.
It is a phenomenon, say some organizers, that amounts to a systematic disenfranchisement of Egyptian women.
"We do not want to use the term ‘harassment,'" Inas Mekkawy, a women’s rights activist with the group Baheya. told AFP. What is happening today is sexual terrorism."
Top image: Protesters opposing Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi take part in protest, demanding that he resign, at Tahrir Square in Cairo. (Suhaib Salem/Reuters)