[Originally published here as part of WITNESS‘s collaboration with Global Voices Online]

In the run-up to the annual global campaign for 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence, Egypt’s First Lady, Suzanne Mubarak, addressing a meeting of the Arab Women’s Organisation, issued a heartfelt plea:

What shall we do to face challenges of discrimination, extremism and religious fanaticism?

It’s a vexing question – and one to which women back home in Egypt would have a very specific answer: stop ignoring violence against women even when it’s become an international scandal thanks to citizen video and the internet.

In her speech, Mrs Mubarak failed to make even a passing reference to what had happened to tens of women in her home city of Cairo just a couple of weeks before. A wave of attacks on women in downtown Cairo erupted on the Muslim feast day of Eid Al Fitr, October 24th 2006, when large groups of men attacked several women in the street, as Manal and Alaa’s bit bucket relates. But this wasn’t a one-off – in January 2006, on Eid al Adha, film-maker Sherif Sadek was back in Cairo, when he heard a commotion on the street outside his downtown apartment. Sherif grabbed his camera and leaned out the window to film this video.


Initially it’s a little difficult to tell what is going on in the video – there are crowds in the middle of the street, which looks unusual – but after about 25 seconds, you will see two or three men leading four or five girls down the street past the building from which Sherif is filming. The crowd behind them is extremely large, a couple of hundred strong, and soon surrounds the girls (around 1’20). They then pass down a side-street, partially out of view, which gives Sherif time to spot a man in uniform – a police officer? – looking down the street at the commotion, who then gets back in his vehicle (1’50). Sections of the crowd then come running back round the corner, although it’s not clear whether they have the girls with them or not.

The October attacks took a similar form. GV’s Amira al Hussaini rounds up the best blog coverage of the October attacks, including blogger Wael Abbas‘s eye-witness account, and Mechanical Crowds’ attempt to pull together the key facts.

Most strikingly, one of the victims of the Eid al Fitr attacks seems to have found a voice through the medium of blogging. Wounded Girl From Cairo appears to be by one of the women attacked on Eid al Fitr, and her description of her ordeal is required reading.

Official media remain silent in “Black Hole of the Internet”

In most countries this would dominate the national media for days, but much of Egypt’s official and semi-official media remained conspicuously silent for many days after the events of Eid al Fitr. These stories would probably have died but for Egyptian bloggers such as Wael Abbas, Arabist, 3arabawy and Sandmonkey, who wrote both in Arabic and in English, publicising the video of the incident. Even as international attention grew, Egyptian media maintained their silence, only broken by government-aligned magazine Rose al Yousef, which attacked Wael Abbas for besmirching Egypt’s name. The government eventually responded, saying that these events could not have occurred, since there had been no reports of crimes of that kind. In a society where, activists say, women are forced to take the blame for attacks on them, and where police do not take such reports of sexual harassment seriously, is it so surprising that there were no reports of harassment crimes on those nights?

Egypt is listed by Reporters Sans Frontieres as one of the “13 Enemies of the Internet”, a Black Hole of information, yet, since the Eid al Fitr attacks, discussion and debate has erupted online about what could have caused this outburst of violence against women. On Al-Ahram Weekly, one commentator see this as part of a larger pattern of frustration at economic and social divisions in Egypt, while another speculates that young men see “women’s bodies as the only battleground between Islam and the West.” Bloggers female and male have speculated on whether it’s down to sexual frustration among young men. Sandmonkey even points to a TV interview with a man he says is a convicted rapist on Egypt’s Death Row, in an attempt to “make some sense of the Eid attacks”.

Women face widespread sexual harassment

Whatever the complex causes of this violence, public sexual harassment is a human rights problem that, according to some female Egyptian bloggers, every woman in Egypt has experienced, but about which there is apparently little public debate.

The Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights runs a campaign to collect and document testimonies about sexual harassment of women and plans to take the evidence of widespread harassment to the government to get them to take the problem seriously. The ECWR campaign aims to raise awareness and debate in the media about harassment, which, if the blogs are anything to go by, affects thousands of women on the streets of Cairo and Egypt’s other cities every single day.

How successful the ECWR’s campaign has been or could be is unclear, but since the Eid al Fitr attacks, female bloggers such as Mademoiselle HH, Ghawayesh, Zeinobia, and MaryInEgypt, and many commenters on their blogs, have related their own experiences of sexual harassment, and even sexual abuse, to a wider world.

If blogs and citizen video are finally breaking the official and semi-official media’s silence on this issue, that is to be welcomed, but the government’s attitude may have some distance to travel.

Shutting down women’s rights demonstrations at home…

Two demonstrations against sexual harassment in the street have been held in Cairo near the site of the October attacks, on 9th and 14th November. Blogger Mademoiselle HH attended the demonstration on 9th November, and “got home in one piece and did not have to use either my pepper spray or my telescope baton which was a relief”. Her trepidation was understandable, given how women activists and journalists were treated during a protest against a referendum in May 2006 – sexually assaulted by supporters of the ruling party as police looked on, without intervening. Two excellent photo slideshows of the 9th November protest are on Flickr, by Nora Younis and by Nasser Nouri, a Reuters photographer.

On 14th November Magda Ally, Director of the Nadim Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Torture, led a demonstration, at which speakers called for the government to take action against sexual harassment in public spaces. The 50 protesters from The Street Is Ours were surrounded by hundreds of police and security services personnel, and were pushed away from the Metro Cinema, where the Eid al Fitr attacks began, into the Excelsior Cafe, where they remained for an hour. Foreign journalists complained to Reporters Sans Frontieres that they were being prevented from reporting on the protest, in the course of which eight activists were detained.

Mohamed Gamal, a blogger who witnessed the Eid al Fitr attacks and attended the 14th November protest, sums up in The Daily Star what many Egyptians are thinking:

“It is the duty of our government to provide security to all Egyptian citizens,” he says. “The security forces are only protecting the regime instead of the Egyptian people.”

Attempts to foster the public debate continue in the face of intimidation. There’s a meeting planned for 4th December at the American University in Cairo, AUC, at which speakers will debate a range of key issues emerging out of the Eid al Fitr attacks.

… while championing women’s rights abroad

Recommendations for protecting and respecting the rights of Egypt’s women have come regularly from many quarters – the Egypt Human Development Report (PDF), the National Council of Women, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. President Hosni Mubarak‘s government was cracking down on protests by its female citizens at the same time as the President’s wife, Suzanne Mubarak, leading the Egyptian delegation at the Bahrain meeting of the Arab Women’s Organisation, issued a challenge to Arab states and societies:

“The development of women cannot be separated from the development of Arab society as a whole. Development requires social, political and economic reform. The Arab world faces globalisation challenges and must be able to partner with developed countries. In order to meet these challenges, the role of women must be activated.”

But to Egypt’s women, appealing in vain to Hosni Mubarak’s government to tackle the problem of public sexual harassment and humiliation, his wife’s challenge must seem like a distant dream.

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