ISTANBUL — When I first watched the viral video from Sunday night’s celebration for newly elected Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, it was hard to make out what actually happened. A faceless, surging mob. Police shooting in the air. Chaos.
And then, a young woman’s naked body filled the frame. Around her, hands grabbed and pushed and pulled. Her clothing had been ripped off. The woman’s backside was bruised and bloodied from being beaten and sexually violated, and her most intimate areas were exposed to a crowd of thousands, and now the world, on social media. The woman — just one of several reported victims of assault in Tahrir Square on Sunday night, like so many other nights — narrowly escaped with her life.
Friends and colleagues in Egypt told me not to watch the video. “It will make you sick,” they warned.
When I finally sat down to watch the two-minute clip, I found myself wishing I could cry. But I was grossly unaffected. Like many other women in Egypt, I had brushed off and blocked out the close calls and the daily humiliation on the streets. But now, after leaving Egypt and relocating to Turkey last week, it’s time to remember.
There was the time a male colleague and I were chased by a frenzied mob of men, seemingly intent on violating me for covering an Islamist rally in their neighborhood. There was the moment an older man simply told me to run for my life as a group of leering men surged nearby in a dark street leading to Tahrir Square. I’ll never forget the look on the face of the frantic female stranger who piled into a friend’s car with me to escape. And then there was the night last November, when for the first time I saw a gang of men in Tahrir chase and beat a woman, seemingly out of nowhere. Families gleefully watched a soccer match on TV several paces away, unaware or perhaps just ignoring the mass attack.
Egypt is a country of contradictions: politically, socially, religiously. One contradiction, in particular, has stuck with me. Despite the country’s sexualized violence against women — marital rape, incest, female genital mutilation, and all-too-frequent assaults in public spaces — Egypt is a country of furiously strong women. Like the girl in the blue bra whose photo went viral after security forces beat her for protesting. The plump woman with strong hands who, despite not having a man to support her in a highly patriarchal culture, proudly runs a corner store and demands respect. And the mother who threatened to leave her husband after he suggested their young daughter have her clitoris surgically removed, like a reported 91 percent of women in Egypt aged 14 to 49.
And then there are the strong Egyptian men who refuse to accept that violent sexual behavior is the new norm. There’s the middle-aged police officer who says he doesn’t recognize the generation of young men who hiss at women and grope them in broad daylight (even though the soldiers who guard his police station often do just that). The fresh-faced teenage boy who, in the middle of a crowd, leads two women to a taxi to make sure they’re safe, gently closing the door behind them. And the broad-shouldered translator who doubles as a bodyguard, pushing through a group of aggressive men and telling a female journalist she needs to leave the protest “right now.”
It’s easy to forget these strong characters when a female Egyptian television anchor laughs about Sunday’s assaults, saying the boys were just “having a good time.” When a male nurse sends sexual text messages to a woman after performing emergency surgery on her, when a father playfully teaches his prepubescent son how to catcall women outside of a Cairo metro stop, and when a military leader, now Egypt’s president, publicly defends forced “virginity tests” on female protesters.
Seven men were arrested following Sunday’s attack, and two days later el-Sissi ordered strict implementation of a new law meant to address sexual harassment. But some rights groups and activists say they fear the law isn’t enough, or that it won’t be taken seriously. Security forces now tasked with enforcing the law often blame victims and harass women themselves.
Soon after Sunday’s attack, several of my female Egyptian friends shared an event on Facebook called Walk Like An Egyptian Woman. It’s a planned protest — now illegal without prior consent from the government — set for Saturday in solidarity with the women who were violently attacked in Tahrir, and women everywhere in Egypt who face violence every day. So far, more than 13,000 people have said they will attend. We’ll see if the government breaks it up and arrests people, or if women will be assaulted during the protest, an ironic twist that Egypt knows too well.
“Let’s prove that Egyptian women are strong and that respectful Egyptian men do in fact exist, and they need to be looked up to!” the event description reads. “Leave your political views aside now,” it continued, perhaps commenting on the political blame game that has unfolded following the weekend attack.
“This is something that should unite us all because it happens to all kinds of women, which could be you, your friend, your sister, your mother, your cousin, your wife, anyone you know!”
I won’t be at the protest, but I know many friends and colleagues, both Egyptians and foreigners, who are planning to attend. It is this spirit, this enraged insistence that things must change, that initially drew me to Egypt’s story, despite the country’s current protest-weary political atmosphere.
And as I take a step back to reflect on Egypt in the wake of Sunday’s mob attacks, I can’t help but wonder, perhaps naively, if this could be a real breaking point. Because if mob assaults at a celebration for a president who promises security don’t prove to be enough of a wake-up call, then I don’t know what is.