Two years on from Egypt’s triumphant revolution, protests have returned to Cairo’s Tahrir Square, and with them a plague of sexual assaults – rising to a peak of 25 reported assaults on January 25.
Now Egyptian women are fighting back, through civil society groups determined to provide the protection that police have failed to deliver.
“We want to create safe space for women to protest,” Salma, a founding member the group ‘Tahrir Bodyguard,’ told Metro. “We have volunteers to patrol the square at the Friday demonstrations and if they see an attack they intervene and take the girl to safety.”
The uniformed volunteers try to avoid confrontation, says Salma, but wear protective clothing and “accept that they will face violence.” Volunteers have been beaten and stabbed in their efforts to disrupt attacks.
‘Tahrir Bodyguard’ was established spontaneously in December by a small group of female friends, in response to the growing number of women refusing to attend protests for fear of sexual assault. They established a Twitter account for people to report assaults, and were flooded with messages of support.
The group quickly expanded to 300 active volunteers, in alliance with similar groups such as Basma and Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment (OpAntiSH), and there are signs that such actions are having an impact, despite around 80 percent of Egyptians believing that assaults are the victim’s fault according to a recent survey. The group is planning to launch courses in self-defense.
“It is making a difference because they refer cases to us for psychological and medical help,” Dr Farah Shash, lead researcher into violence against women at Cairo’s El-Nadeem Center, told Metro. “Public and media attitudes are beginning to change as people realize how traumatic these incidents are.”
But Shash believes the government is resisting any progress.
“We see a pattern to assaults and we know that it is organized. The assaults are systematic, on the same streets, with the same people. We can’t say who exactly is behind them, but by refusing to take action, the Ministry of Interior is implicitly supporting them.”
The Ministry could not be reached for comment, but in December pledged to launch extra patrols and airborne unit.