Mass sexual assault in downtown Cairo

Posted on October 29, 2006

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On the first two days of Eid in Cairo, a mob of hundreds of men swept through downtown attacking and sexually assaulting random girls in an animalistic display that must boggle every mind. Apparently, the utter lack of basic decency, respect for women, or the rule of law was not confined to Ramadan alone – in fact, Ramadan appears to have been the only thing suppressing the baser instincts of these men. I feel sick at heart, and may never spend time downtown again, as it seems we women are actively in danger there. Will Cairo one day be like Mogadishu, where every woman is raped before she turns 16?

Who to blame? I’ll go with law enforcement. I was assigned an article once that said that a rape takes place every three minutes in North America alone; God knows what the number is worldwide. Many rapes are not reported. It is safe to say that is it futile to rail against dangerous male misconceptions of sex, and women, and consent – it doesn’t seem to have worked before. Most men – especially in deeply patriarchal societies like this one – don’t actually believe that no means no, or they don’t care. The only thing that can prevent sexual assault is fear of consequences, a fear that is entirely absent in Egypt. Socially, people don’t give a shit – it’s the woman’s fault, she led him on, look what she was wearing – and apparently frustrated hormones serve as a complete defense to any crime. But Egypt’s criminal code provides for numerous avenues of protection against assault, sexual harassment, and even unpleasant language. However, these felonies are rarely prosecuted and even more rarely reported to the authorities. A woman must have witnesses or physical evidence to even file a charge. Same old, I guess. It’ll be a few decades before they realize that credibility is usually the only evidence any decision maker has in any case, and that rape should be no different. Of course, in this case, witnesses and physical evidence were plentiful, but nothing will happen. I’m also of the opinion that if pre-marital sex were easily feasible, forget socially permitted, there would be less pent-up frustration, or at least men would know women, which I feel would go far towards promoting respect. But then, who creates the laws that curtail privacy rights? Who are the people that segregate Egyptian society and condemn women who have extra-marital sex? Men. Men who then turn around and place the blame for their policy choices on women. Why should we have to pay the price for social/legal codes not of our making? People who have religious reasons for abstention from pre-marital sex will abstain regardless of whether police will come knocking on their door, but the law should have no place in the bedrooms of the nation, and a hymen is not the same as a character reference.

The Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights has been organizing a campaign for some time against the persistent verbal and physical violence against women in Cairo. It is possible to contain it and deter it; it has virtually vanished from several Gulf countries as a result of increased police vigilance, fines, and the publicizing of the pictures of perpetrators. Something like that should be done here. Just because the men of Egypt are sexually frustrated, poor, and oppressed does not mean they can oppress others. Let’s do something – go volunteer, anything. I will. We women are Egyptians too and the streets are just as much ours as theirs.

Below is an eyewitness account I translated, in a somewhat rudimentary fashion, by Malek, a blogger who was there at the time. Find pictures at Wael Abbas.

Downtown’s Sexual Frenzy

Update:

Today I saw the same scene on the Nile Corniche (Abdel Minem Riad) that I saw yesterday. I could not take any photographs but Radwa assured me that she saw incidents of assault taking place in front of her before she found a taxi and sped home.

There was no police interference despite the presence of Central Security forces near the Arab League and near the American Embassy, not more than five minutes away on foot from the site of the events.

While yesterday the attacks were just random, young men now formed human trains that approached a girl quickly and surrounded her completely and began groping parts of her body. You can find pictures of what occurred at the end of the post.

We were sitting in a coffee shop downtown, I and Wael Abbas and Nasser Noury (a photographer for Reuters) and Mohammed El Sharkawy and others. A colleague joined us and told us that in front of Cinema Metro on Talaat Harb Street sexual assaults were taking place and that the cinema’s ticket window had been vandalized.

We made our way over there shortly, and in our minds we thought that what our colleague had told us was merely empty talk, with no basis in truth, especially as the streets surrounding Cinema Metro were very quiet as we walked toward there. We stopped at the cinema after we saw that the shattered ticket window, supposing that what the colleague had told us was just illusion or exaggeration at the most, but then after less than five minutes we found vast numbers of youth whistling and running towards Adly Street. We accompanied them to see what was going on.

We were surprised to find a girl in her early twenties who had fainted on the ground, surrounded by a large number of youth who were groping parts of her body and taking off her clothes.

I could not understand, or rather could not absorb, what was happening…the girl got up quickly and tried to run in any direction until she saw a Syrian restaurant called “el Madyafa” or something, and ran into it. The young men surrounded the restaurant and did not leave till one of them shouted, “There’s another girl in front of Miami!”

Everyone ran towards Talaat Harb Street again. I found there a girl encircled by hundreds of men who were trying to grope her and rip off her clothes. This time the girl was rescued by a taxi driver who picked her up in his taxi, but the men did not let the taxi pass and they formed a circle around it demanding that she get out of the car until a policeman interfered, raising his baton and beating anyone he saw in front of him.

The crowd did not disperse until the appearance of two girls wearing the Khaliji ebaya [loose outer garment worn by women from the Gulf] walking alone down the street. The young men surrounded them completely and a large number of them pressed against the girls and removed the veils they were wearing, and attempted to remove their ebayas, while 10 and 11 year old boys slipped inside the ebayas from beneath.

Once again shop owners interfered and sprayed the men with water, and took the girls inside their shops. After less than a second the actress Ola Ghanem, who is starring in one of the movies opening on Eid (Abadet Mawasem), appeared and the young men tried to get to her too, but she was surrounded by personal body guards who tried to protect her but were unable to block all the hungry hands that reached for Ola’s breasts.

After a short while another girl appeared who was also wearing the veil and the ebaya. She was also surrounded and they succeeded this time in removing the ebaya, but a security guard was able to draw her into a building and shut the gate and prevented the young men from reaching the girl.

There was another girl who wore trousers that were a little tight and an ordinary shirt. This time her shirt was removed and her bra ripped and no one helped her except one of the security personnel who had a club and who pulled her into a shop.

These were the incidents I was able to personally witness in less than an hour that I spent in that area. I left after a conflict arose between us and the Security who refused to let us take photographs, and between youth who wanted to steal Wael’s camera, and Wael Abbas, Peter Alfred and Nasser Noury.

The photographs that were taken were out of focus and did not depict the acts of abuse sufficiently, but it was in every case abuse. A very tight circle would be formed and the prey would be in the centre and no one could see what was happening very well.

We heard that one girl had her clothes ripped completely off and that she ran naked until she entered one of the shops and another who got cornered against a wall and surrounded and viciously violated.

There was no police presence and when I asked a lieutenant who was with the Central Security forces he told me that there was Eid all over Egypt and that they could not dispatch any forces to downtown!!!

I was deeply astonished and told him that Eid celebrations were focused on downtown and downtown’s theaters, so how could there not be any forces??? He did not answer and left.

While Wael was photographing the events one security officer pointed his revolver at Wael, threatening to kill him if he continued to take pictures. Wael reacted strongly and we were going to clash with the man, if he hadn’t fled into a building.

I could not blame the young men. In my opinion, sexual repression and depression and cowardice (I do not excuse the perpetrators for what they did, I just cannot understand the motives of over a thousand people who moved as one body towards a single target, I can’t understand) led them to not even distinguish between a veiled girl and an unveiled girl, or even a munaqaba girl [face veiled]. Repression and a severe sexual frenzy made them unable to make any distinctions. One of the chants that they repeated when they headed towards a prey wasYay, we get to fuck! Yay, we get to fuck!” and another after they were done with a girl and headed towards another, “Another one…another one!”

And the chants when they saw women in ebayat, “Beep beep beep…Saudi…beep beep beep Saudi”.

I don’t know who to blame for what I saw. The hysterical girls in the street in front of me? Do I blame the sexually frenzied young men, half of whom, or a little less, will find out when they have sex that they are impotent or ejaculate prematurely or unable to sustain an erection? Should I blame the utter lack of police presence downtown, and allowing this to be so for more than four hours?

Then young men did not distinguish when they undertook their assaults between veiled and unveiled girls.

They did not distinguish on the basis of age.

They were not all of one age, some were ten and under up to men in their forties.

There was an astounding state of chaos that persists until right now (we went there at 8, and now it is 12:30). There was no recognition of any authority or law or ethical values or even religion. There was chaos…but chaos wrongly directed and for the wrong aims.

Final notes:

We tried to direct girls away from the area by standing at the intersection of Abdelkhalek Tharwat Street and Taalat Harb to warn girls not to take Talaat Harb and explaining to them what was going on, and they responded. We managed to do this with more than one girl. Some girls stood next to us because some of us had video cameras, to secure safety, and the youth were unable to attack them because they realized some of us were journalists and they were afraid to have their pictures published. Several men I photographed tried to threaten Peter and Nasser with confiscating their cameras in protest at our photographing them. Most of the pictures we took did not clearly show details because every girl was in a tiny circle and we could not get to her.

We tried more than once to break up what was going on but our number did not exceed seven people, so we couldn’t do anything and every time a shop owner or taxi driver or building security guard would appear and help the girl enter into their premises.

What happened was a farce on every level. Until now I cannot understand the motives that can move more than a thousand young men in one movement towards sexually harassing and sexually assaulting girls passing through the streets, girls of every kind, veiled, facially veiled, unveiled, Muslim, or non-Muslim.

Sexual repression, cowardice, weakness, an attempt to oppress those who are weaker than you…I do not know the truth of what is written or analyzed regarding what happened.

Other coverage at Gemy Hood and Radwa.

I venture to suggest that Malek does not himself think that it makes a difference to the criminal nature of the events whether or not the victim is veiled…but that one would suppose that downtown men would distinguish. I also hope that I erred in interpreting that he actually does not blame the violent mob.

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Posted in: Egypt, gender, law, politics