CAIRO -- In the weeks after a group of men surrounded and sexually assaulted her in Cairo’s iconic Tahrir Square, Yasmine Faithi has returned repeatedly to the place where the nearly hourlong attack began.
She’s retraced her steps from where the crowd of men insisted they were there to protect her even as they ripped off her clothes and groped and tore at every inch of her body. She’s walked past the spot where her attackers told those who were trying to help her that she was wearing a bomb – to keep them away. She’s ended up where a woman, accompanied by a group of men, finally rescued her.
All the while, she’s stared at the faces in the square. Were her attackers still here? Could she retaliate somehow?
“I needed to see where I was and understand and believe what happened,” Faithi said. “I still have the need to go again and again. Maybe my mind needs proof” that the assault really happened.
Tahrir Square is where Egyptians rose up against the regime of Hosni Mubarak more than two years ago. It was a very different time. That there were so few sexual assaults, many hoped, was a sign of a more progressive, democratic Egypt. Whole families came to the square then – mothers, fathers and children – to bask in the energy of the people power that in just 18 days ended three decades of Mubarak rule.
No more. Now every demonstration in Tahrir – and they happen weekly – seethes with likely sexual violence. Faithi, along with at least 18 other women, was assaulted there Jan. 25 – during a demonstration to celebrate the beginning of the anti-Mubarak protests. Now women enter the square with trepidation.
Sexual assault has always been a part of an Egyptian women’s experience – on buses, on the streets and at the scenes of large celebrations. But since the anti-Mubarak uprising there have been two distinct brands of sexual assault: what happens in Tahrir Square and what happens everywhere else.
Outside the square, men put lemons in their pockets and rub up against women in crowded spaces, such as packed buses, to test their reactions. If the women don’t protest, they rub against them with their genitals. If the women object, the other men on the bus call them crazy. Crowds that gather in the street after a major soccer victory or the end of Ramadan grope women in what’s considered a form of celebration. Taxi drivers expose themselves to female passengers. Other drivers grab women’s breasts as they walk by in traffic-crowded streets.
At Tahrir, however, sexual assault is a form of organized warfare that starts when the sun sets. The attacks are sophisticated and violent.
When women started taking men with them to Tahrir for protection, the attackers figured out ways to separate them. When anti-sexual harassment groups emerged, men started donning the group’s vests to pretend they were there to help. When women screamed for help, men shouted over them so no one could hear their pleas. When women started speaking out about such attacks, the government said it was the women who were at fault.
In the last few weeks, a new permutation has occurred: Attackers are using razor blades to cut women’s breasts and genitals.
The attackers appear increasingly organized: One man is assigned to rip off a woman’s pants, another, her top. Then they maneuver her to the dark streets outside the square. There, the attackers surround the woman, keeping away anyone who tries to help her.