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Egypt’s sex attacks on women are revenge for the 2011 revolution

Women protesters in Tahrir square on 6 February 2011 [Flickr]
Women protesters in Tahrir square on 6 February 2011 [Flickr]

The first time Sara Mohani was arrested security forces lined her up against a wall and described her body in intimate detail.

“If we find any photo of the demonstration on your phone, we will rape you,” they told her.

It was 2017 and Sara had been taken to Dokki Police Station from a protest she had been covering for the Bawabet Yanayer website.

She was prepared, but she was still shocked.

“We as women discuss before participating in any demonstration what we would do if we face sexual attacks,” explains Sara. “We ask ourselves that before asking what we would do if we face the security forces’ bullets.”

READ: Egypt proposes bill to criminalise child marriage

In Egypt it’s well known that authorities hire baltagiya – regime thugs – to infiltrate protests and to sexually abuse women.

Authorities attack women at police stations, inside prisons, at checkpoints, on prison visits to their families and in their homes during raids.

Egyptian women hold placards during a demonstration protesting violence against women in Egypt on 22 December 2015 [Amr Sayed/Apaimages]

Egyptian women hold placards during a demonstration protesting violence against women in Egypt on 22 December 2015 [Amr Sayed/Apaimages]

Nine years on from Egypt’s Arab Spring uprising, this is the reality for women in Egypt – verbal and physical sexual abuse of politically active women carried out by Egyptian authorities has become standard procedure.

Amid the cautious optimism of the 2011 Tahrir protests, women stood among the crowds and demanded they play a key role in Egypt’s political life.

They were tired of the Mubarak-era when women routinely had their rights violated, particularly when it came to political participation, and wanted to be integrated into public work.

But instead of giving women a key role in change, their presence terrified the establishment:

After the revolution, women knew the value of their voice, its impact, and its importance in society. As she asked for her rights, the oppression increased

says Sara.

“Violence against women in Egypt is not only by her family, nor men in the street, but also extended to the men in power,” she continues. “Instead of protecting them, they have become the biggest threat to them. Security forces use sexual violence as a threat to stop their political participation and demand a just life.”

Since he came to power, the general turned President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi has had one overriding goal: to prevent another 2011 uprising which would topple him from his throne.

READ: Egypt singer’s music ‘incites abuse against women’, says rights group

To this effect he has imprisoned 60,000 people, tortured them, left them to die in their cells by denying them appropriate medicine, and executed them.

He has also sanctioned, or at the very least turned a blind eye to, numerous cases of sexual violence against women to break their will, force them to confess and try to put them off protesting. By August last year the Turkey-based human rights platform We Record had documented 2,761 cases of torture and degradation against women in detention centres across the country since the 2013 coup.

“Egyptian women during the rule of Al-Sisi are experiencing the darkest era in the history of Egypt,” says Asmaa Shukr, spokesperson for Women Against the Coup, an all-female resistance movement that was founded during the Rabaa sit-in.

Supporters of the late Egyptian ousted President Mohammed Morsi during a protest in Cairo, Egypt on 19 August 2013 [file photo]

Supporters of the late former Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi during a protest in Cairo, Egypt on 19 August 2013 [file photo]

“Sexual violence against women increased significantly after the revolution as if it was a punishment from the system for Egyptian women who joined the revolution.”

Sara agrees: “It’s revenge on women because of her participation in the revolution.”

In a cynical PR twist, Al-Sisi has attempted to model himself as a saviour of women, offering gushing speeches about their fundamental role in society, even declaring 2017 the “Year of the Woman”.

But Egypt has not forgotten the virginity tests the general spearheaded during the 2011 demonstrations against female protesters, then justified by saying they were to protect the army against allegations of rape.

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This top-down approach towards sexual abuse, and the complete absence of accountability against officials who carry it out, has spurred on Egyptians in the street as we saw most recently with the mob sexual assault of a woman in Mansoura as she tried to get into her car on New Year’s Eve.

“The absence of judicial institutions and the lack of justice was a significant reason for the spread of the phenomenon of harassment. The absence of accountability led to the spread of the crime,” says Asmaa.

“And of course, let’s do not forget the role of the security institutions that are supposed to protect Egypt’s women and not abuse them.”

During Al-Sisi’s ascent to power, many women were coming forward to tell their stories and demanding their rights. But as his grip over Egypt became tighter and tighter, they withdrew to protect their families from punitive measures.

READ: Egypt forcibly disappears female activist 

Perhaps the most famous example of this is Umm Zubeida, who was arrested after sharing with the BBC how her daughter had been sexually abused at the hands of security forces.

When she was interrogated the first time her daughter was arrested, guards threatened to rape her daughter in front of her.

Umm Zubeida, the mother of Zubeida Ibrahim Yousef, who was arrested after publicly speaking about the disappearance and rape of her daughter by Egyptian security forces [Facebook]

Umm Zubeida, the mother of Zubeida Ibrahim Yousef, who was arrested after publicly speaking about the disappearance and rape of her daughter by Egyptian security forces [Facebook]

Nancy Kamel, a journalist and mother of two, was arrested twice under the Sisi regime on spurious charges, including spreading rumours on Facebook.

She was put in a cell with four other women. Blood from the torture of other detainees covered the interior, including the blankets. Someone had inscribed, “some day you will suffer like you made us suffer,” in black pen across the wall.

One of the guards told Nancy he had been given orders not to let her family know if she was alive or dead. “Why didn’t you just say you liked your president?” another asked her while transferring her to court.

READ: UN review highlights Egypt’s dire human rights record

“For everything that happened in Egypt,” she replied. “It’s my country and I love my country, I wanted the best country in the world.”

At Nancy’s court hearing her sister attended with one of Nancy’s daughters, hoping she would get a glimpse of her mother. “This woman is a bitch, why would you give her her child?” the officer said. “She’s not allowed to see her daughter.”

On another occasion, her mother and father came to visit her, and when she saw her daughters through the glass she waved, shouting out “I’m coming.” When the officers saw how excited she was to see her daughters they cancelled the visit and she was taken back to the cell.

During her time in prison, Sara was subject to a violent and degrading body search by a criminal prisoner and sexually harassed verbally. When she complained guards placed two sets of handcuffs on her, put her in a non-ventilated cell for seven hours and searched her again.

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Sara says she is receiving psychological treatment for the memories of being forced to listen to other prisoners being tortured and screaming from the pain, which authorities describe as a “torture party”.

She remembers the time a three-year-old and five-year-old girl were arrested with their father and sent into the men’s cell, their father begging the officers to send the girls to the women’s block in case they were assaulted.

“They added the girls to our cell and when their mother arrived to take them the police asked her to clean the floors of the police station first before they would hand over the girls,” she recalls.

Just before Christmas, Maryam Salem became the first female detainee to die in prison after prison authorities refused to transfer her to hospital when her health deteriorated.

Maryam was 32 and had given birth to her son whilst in detention. Authorities gave him to an orphanage after his second birthday.

Unfortunately for Maryam, her name was not well known before her death, which in many cases seems to be key in sealing a detainees’ fate.

Sara says that when she was detained officers were checking Facebook for updates about her. “They went crazy,” she says, “asking me why people were talking about me.”

“I want to advise families of detainees to speak about them. I remember when I was in prison that when people talk about us in the media, the police’s treatment of us became better. They shouldn’t let police think they are forgotten. It really matters. Some of the forcibly disappeared were killed because no one spoke or asked about them.”

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