Today’s outrage is accompanied by such horrific, specific footage that it comes with a triple X warning to all thinking, caring human beings. The link at the end of this post is to video footage of the actual events described by the headline Woman stripped beaten and sexually assaulted in Tahrir Square.
Sexual assault at protests in Tahrir Square is endemic. Last year, Al-Monitor reported the tactic of surrounding women protestors as a “human shield”. This term is usually reserved for propaganda purposes – Israel frequently claims that killing civilians in Gaza, the most densely populated strip of land on earth, is unavoidable because family members shield ‘militants’. Here, however, ‘human shield’ could not be more accurate, legitimately deployed to describe the necessity of shielding women from sexual assault during the five years and counting of waves of protests across Cairo.
Was it only five years ago that the Green Revolution gave us the despicable ‘first’ of live death footage uploaded to YouTube? The death of Nena Agha-Soltan went viral – of course it did – non-censored circulation of the most horrific and public of private moments is ‘a thing’, as our callous culture would have it. I didn’t watch her death, but am both moved by and optimistic that her death was not in vain, that the wider movement raised awareness outside of Iran, and that young people in the west are, and will be, more politically engaged as a result.
We know that the ‘middle east’ is widely and regularly demonised by western conservative politicians, painted as a hotbed of terrorism for the purposes of fear-mongering to domestic political audiences in their safe and comfortable homes. It is not hard to reach out and touch the latent fear in the hearts of those who are enriched by the theft and exploitation of others’ autonomy. As an Australian, I see daily the slender, tender layer of bravado that can be touched in white Australians who know, not particularly deep down, that we walk on Aboriginal land.
The death of Nena Agha-Soltan can and should and I believe will make it harder for the powerful machines of the fear-mongers and panic-merchants to find a place in the hearts of young westerners who are alert to the facts. While we are taught to fear people with legitimate grievances; we should really fear our own war-loving, capital-hoarding, planet-destroying “elected leaders”.
To return, the long way around, to Egypt: the place of women at the protests could not be more relevant, or necessary, either. Leaving aside electoral due process and legitimacy, the struggle for secular rule is inherently, urgently, about women’s autonomy.
Last night I scrolled onto a rare long post from a colleague and friend who usually shares links without commentary. Her style is different from mine. I like to add a little blurb, or my reaction to the content, whether anger, laughter or tears. But Sandra doesn’t. She lets the reader decide. I often read the coverage she sends, which is from her PhD field work in Egypt. Sandra is researching an amazing ‘flashmob’ type networked response to sexual and other mob violence against women in the context of political upheaval. The network is connected by mobile and smart phone, by text and social media. When a woman is threatened or attacked, nearby members respond with citizen action, calling authorities and often physically corralling the abuser away from the woman. The on-ground action is complemented by awareness raising and other education and media strategies.
According to a Global Mail report from July last year, over 90 women were assaulted in just four days of protests.
“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,” the report said.
Parse that for a moment. Men claiming to help were in fact taking part in violent assaults including rape. It reminds me of those not-particularly-rare stories of police officers and priests who, on hearing a complaint of sexual assault, would commit a sexual attack of their own on the complainant. Their sick sense is of women and children being nothing more than a sexual object, and spoilt goods at that, instead of a fellow human being in need of comfort, support and healing. This icy, nasty kernel of callous hatred and objectifying brutality is found from west to east.
In response, Tahrir Bodyguard members wear neon yellow vests and helmets to circumvent this despicable exploitation. “We aim for zero cases of sexual terrorism in Tahrir and keep on working until every person can express their opinion without getting raped or assaulted.”
It is not my intention, and nor do I have the expertise, to cover here the towering importance of women’s freedom to protest in a country where political powers-that-be and powers-to-be seek to wind back reforms in such areas as female genital mutilation and the legal marriageable age. It is no coincidence that as women fight long and hard to win political progress, men draw together and together attack individual women and their freedom to protest safely. Where “safely” means “without being raped”.
Today’s outrage is brought to you by men who do not want women to exercise political rights. And again, the warning: this link is to an eye-witness hand-held recorder of the actual sexual assault described by the headline Woman stripped beaten and sexually assaulted in Tahrir Square.