(New York) – Egyptian officials and political leaders across the spectrum should condemn and take immediate steps to address the horrific levels of sexual violence against women in Tahrir Square. Egyptian anti-sexual harassment groups confirmed that mobs sexually assaulted and in some cases raped at least 91 women in Tahrir Square, over four days of protests beginning on June 30, 2013, amid a climate of impunity.
“The rampant sexual attacks during the Tahrir Square protests highlight the failure of the government and all political parties to face up to the violence that women in Egypt experience on a daily basis in public spaces,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “These are serious crimes that are holding women back from participating fully in the public life of Egypt at a critical point in the country’s development.”
The Egyptian group Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment/Assault, which runs a hotline for victims of sexual assault and seeks to intervene to stop attacks, has received scores of reports of attacks on women in Tahrir Square over the past three days. The group confirmed 46 attacks on June 30, 17 on July 1, and 23 on July 2. The group’s volunteers intervened to protect and evacuate women in 31 cases of sexual assault. Four of the women needed medical assistance, including two who were evacuated by ambulance. The women’s rights group Nazra for Feminist Studies had confirmed another five attacks on June 28.
One woman required surgery after being raped with a “sharp object,” volunteers with the group said. In other cases, women were beaten with metal chains, sticks, and chairs, and attacked with knives. In some cases they were assaulted for as long as 45 minutes before they were able to escape.
Human Rights Watch has long documented the problem of sexual assault in Cairo’s streets and particularly at protests. A new video highlights the stories of women who have been attacked, in some cases as recently as January.
The Egyptian government’s response has typically been to downplay the extent of the problem or to seek to address it through legislative reform alone. What is needed are concerted efforts to improve law enforcement’s practice in protecting victims and effectively investigating and prosecuting the attackers, as well as a comprehensive national strategy on the part of the government, Human Rights Watch said.
Since November 2011, police have stayed away from Tahrir Square during bigger protests, to avoid clashes with protesters. This has left women protesters unprotected, and the men involved in the gang attacks and rapes secure in the knowledge that they will not be arrested or identified by police, Human Rights Watch said.
Women’s rights groups reported at least 19 cases of mob sexual assaults in Tahrir square in January, including six women who required urgent medical assistance, as well as 10 in November 2012, and 7 in June 2012. In January, one of the cases reported to the anti-sexual harassment group was a woman who was raped with a bladed weapon that cut her genitals.
There is little awareness of or respect for the privacy of victims or how to appropriately deal with their trauma on the part of state medical officials, the media, and political parties like the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Freedom and Justice Party, Human Rights Watch said. On July 1, the party’s website, and the July 2 print version of the party’s paper, violated the privacy of one victim, identifying her by name and nationality. The report cited a “Ministry of Health representative” as the source of this information.
Human Rights Watch is aware of cases in which police officers and hospital officials have shared information with the media about the identity of victims without their consent, a violation of their right to privacy and in some cases a security risk for the victims.
Based on survivor and witness accounts, it appears that the attacks have tended to follow similar patterns. Typically a handful of young men at demonstrations single out a woman and encircle her, separating her from her friends. During the attacks – which have lasted from a few minutes to more than an hour – the number of attackers increases and they grope the woman’s body and try to remove her clothing. The attackers often drag the woman to a different location while continuing to attack her.
In some cases, the attackers have assaulted other women and activists with sticks and knives for trying to rescue the victims. Survivors and witnesses told Human Rights Watch that some of the men claiming to help the women during the attacks were in fact taking part, further disorienting victims, who could not assess who was in fact assisting them.
Survivors of sexual assault are usually unwilling to speak publicly about attacks because of social stigma. In one of the rare cases in which a victim has been willing to describe an attack, Yasmine El Baramawy, a 30-year-old musician, told Human Rights Watch that she was raped and assaulted on the evening of November 23, 2012, for 90 minutes after going to a demonstration in Tahrir Square. After men knocked her to the ground, they ripped her clothes and cut her blouse and bra. As the attack continued, the group around her increased from about 15 to more than 100 men:
At the height of the attack, I looked up and saw 30 individuals on a fence. All of them had smiling faces, and they were recording me with their cellphones. They saw a naked woman, covered in sewage, who was being assaulted and beaten, and I don’t know what was funny about that. This is a question that I’m still thinking about, I can’t stop my mind from thinking about it.
In March, Yasmine el-Baramawy, Hania Moheeb, and five other women filed a joint complaint about the sexual assaults against them with the Kasr el-Nil prosecution office. Prosecutors opened an investigation and took the women’s testimony in March, but the case is still under investigation and has not resulted in the identification or indictment of any attackers. Deciding to make a criminal complaint is unfortunately an unusual move among survivors, who feel particularly vulnerable.
“Impunity for sexual violence against women in the public sphere in Egypt is the norm,” Stork said. “Women in Egypt rarely report to the police when they have been sexually assaulted because they have no reason to believe that there will be a serious investigation.”
The Egyptian National Council for Women recently drafted an anti-sexual violence law and submitted it to the cabinet and presidency on June 12. The Interior Ministry announced on May 9 that it had set up a special unit within the human rights division, staffed by some women police officers, to address violence against women.
Official discourse around sexual harassment in Egypt is a key part of the problem, Human Rights Watch said. In February 2012, members of the Shura Council, Egypt’s legislative body, blamed women for the mob assaults in Tahrir, with one member, General Adel Afifi, saying that, “Women contribute 100 percent in their rape because they put themselves in such circumstances.”
Egypt is a party to several international human rights conventions including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, and the Convention Against Torture, that impose binding legal obligations to ensure protections from rape and other forms of sexual abuse. Egypt also has an obligation to ensure all victims have access to an effective remedy, which obligates the state to prevent, investigate, and punish sexual violence against women. Egypt is also obliged under international human rights law to provide reproductive, sexual, and mental health services, and other redress to victims of sexual violence.
“The piecemeal, ad-hoc responses from Egyptian governments are grossly inadequate to prevent sexual violence and ensure that victims get the medical and psycho-social support they need,” Stork said. “If Egypt’s leaders are serious about confronting sexual violence, they need to acknowledge the appalling scope of the problem and establish a comprehensive national strategy to address it, in coordination with religious institutions, civil society, and the media.”
Attacks on June 30 and July 1
Five volunteers with the Egyptian group who spoke with Human Rights Watch described in detail 10 of the 23 cases of sexual assault in which they intervened, from around 7 p.m. to 2:10 a.m. on the night of June 30, mostly on the eastern side of Tahrir Square and in nearby streets. Many of the women were badly beaten in addition to being sexually abused, and crowds repeatedly attacked the volunteers while they attempted to escort the women to safety.
One woman required surgery after being raped with “fingers and a sharp object,” volunteers said. Human Rights Watch confirmed details of the case, including the woman’s medical condition and treatment, with another source, who asked not to be identified.
In that case, at around 9:30 p.m., a crowd of men attacked a woman in her early 20’s in Mohammed Mahmud Street near Tahrir Square. Karim Massoud, 24, a volunteer with the Egyptian group, told Human Rights Watch that “hundreds of men” attacked the woman, forced her into a nearby side street, and attacked volunteers who sought to intervene:
They used weapons to attack us. We got her inside a café, she didn’t have trousers on, so we dressed her. The window was our only way out. I escorted her to the ambulance, which was also attacked by the mobs. She was badly bleeding in the ambulance, but she was conscious. When we got the hospital, the doctor said that she had to undergo a surgery to stop the vaginal bleeding.
In other cases, volunteers said, crowds of men attacked women and volunteers seeking to help them with metal chains, sticks, knives, belts, and chairs. In some cases, it took as long as 45 minutes to extract the women who were being attacked from the clutches of the mobs. Volunteers who were alone when they witnessed attacks said they were unable to intervene without more assistance. Many attacks were against more than one woman at a time. One case involved an attack against a group of six women. In another case, a large group of men attacked two women, one of whom was apparently with her husband, volunteers said.
Dirk Wanrooij, one of the volunteers, said that at around 11 p.m., near the Arab League building in downtown Cairo, about 15 men “violently grabbed and undressed” a young woman:
It started in the middle of the street. The girl got pushed over to the Arab League building against the fence. People were interfering, there were a lot of weapons: whips, belts were being used a lot, wooden sticks, batons, and some sort of liquid they poured from a pot. It grew to at least 40 people. It was very violent. Some onlookers were saying, “She’s a prostitute,” others were saying, “This is harassment, we should do something to help.” The girl eventually was pulled out by guys who climbed over the fence of the Arab League building and pulled her back over the fence, while other guys were trying to pull her back and holding her.
Ahmad Ezz, an intervention team leader, said he saw 12 attacks on June 30, against women ages 17 to 50, including at least two foreign citizens. The attacks occurred primarily in “hot spots like the entrance to Mohammed Mahmoud from the square, and to Sharia Tahrir,” Ezz said. Teams of 25 to 30 people intervened to try to halt the attacks:
The attackers are always armed, carrying knives, sticks, everything except live firearms. Sometimes there are hundreds of people surrounding the girls so we’re trying to expand the numbers in the intervention teams. It’s hard to tell how many men are attacking the women in each case because our focus when we’re running toward the attack is to stop the smallest circle, because we know the woman will be in there.