In confronting rape, we are taught to appeal to the law, to the police, to anyone who can offer protection. What if the only way to prevent a rape were to intervene yourself?
This issue, Lux is publishing a chapter of Radius, a new book by Yasmin El-Rifae, which tells the story of Opantish — Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment — a group that she and other women organized to intervene in mass sexual assaults that occurred in Tahrir Square in Cairo during the 2013 phase of the Egyptian revolution. (In this period, protesters fought with the Muslim Brotherhood’s government, which would ultimately fall to a military coup.) The scale of sexual violence was like nothing the activists had seen before and, in the face of it, they built a guerilla strategy for extracting women from mobs.
El-Rifae, who recently moved to London from Cairo, spoke with Molly Crabapple, an artist and writer whose work has also focused on protest, self-defense, and Middle Eastern politics. Crabapple is writing a book about the Jewish Bund and its members’ self-defense strategies. What follows is an edited transcript of their conversation, and an excerpt from the book. El-Rifae has noted that Opantish had few models to rely on. Now, feminists from the U.S. to Iran have Radius.
MOLLY CRABAPPLE I wanted to start by asking you a bit about the origins of Opantish.
YASMIN EL-RIFAE The group started from what were essentially groups of people who knew one another, whether through friendship or activism — usually a mix of both. There had been isolated incidents of mob sexual assault in the square since the revolution began, but in late 2012 they became a pattern, and it started to become an almost daily thing. Those first responses came together quite spontaneously — people had it happen to themselves or to friends of theirs or had been in the square and seen it happening to somebody else. And so there was this feeling amongst women and men, but mostly women, especially in the very beginning, that they just had to do something.
It was a time of very frequent mass mobilization in the square, and a lot of the people who would become part of the core group of Opantish had experience in political organizing in different realms. So people just kind of started going out in these ad hoc groups — you could call them squads — to intervene if they saw something. And then eventually a couple of these groups started linking up, and then they decided to come up with a name and manifesto and identity, and so on. In the center of it, I should say, was a woman who had been attacked by a man near Tahrir Square. She was attacked and then the other people on the street turned against her because she said she was going to take him to the police. She also worked for an organization called the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), an NGO that’s still doing important work in Cairo, under the dire circumstances that we’re in now. And so because this woman was working there, the organization became an incubating space for some of those earlier meetings of activists trying to figure out how to coordinate their organizing efforts.
MC And how did you come to the group?
YER I was a research intern at EIPR at the time, but I was also friends with several people who were part of those initial spontaneous efforts. There was an email invitation that went out to certain people, and I was included on that. At first I was doing a lot of administrative stuff like organizing call sheets, translating posts and testimonies, organizing the space for these meetings that got bigger and bigger. And then volunteering in both the operations room and as a part of a safety unit.
Safety units were attached to the intervention teams, but the idea was to try not to get involved in the violence or in the fighting, to stay outside the mob but connected to what was happening, so that if the intervention groups were able to pull women out, we could then take them to a safe house or to the hospital if that’s where they needed to go. So that was my very first on-the-ground volunteering, as part of a safety unit.
MC One of the things I really appreciated about the book was how intensely detailed and specific it is about the prosaic work of organizing during revolutionary times. It’s much more typical, when people are writing about a moment of revolution, for them to make it all about glorious masses in the street. But what this book does is also show the nuts and bolts of how these things came to be. How teams are organized, how people get the shirts that identify them as members of a squad. How things fuck up, how there aren’t enough painkillers, how sometimes people don’t recognize each other, and they might punch someone in the head because they can’t see who’s friend and who’s foe. Why did you want to go into such specificity about the work of organizing?
YER I want this book to be a useful account for people who are thinking about collective or direct action across various fronts. It’s about trying to organize politically committed emergency interventions under constantly changing conditions. I did not shy away from being transparent and going back to the things that were difficult and the things that didn’t work. To tell the story of Opantish with any honesty I had to talk about the very steep learning curve, because at first we really didn’t know what we were doing. I don’t know how any human being could have had any idea how to deal with such violence, with the force of a crowd behaving in such a way, without having actually been in it or seen it. You just have to experience it and then learn from it. The painful truth is that especially at the beginning, many people who volunteered and organized for Opantish were hurt while trying to help one another, to help other women. But over time we did learn a bunch of things about intervening in a crowd, and other things as well.
Many of the people I wrote about are my friends, and I still consider them very dear to me. But it wasn’t about making people out to be heroes. I don’t know how useful that is. It might be stirring or inspiring, but I don’t know how real it is, and how true it would’ve been to the experience.
MC How many of your comrades that you wrote about are still free and living in Egypt?
YER Of the people I’ve written about, I do not think anybody’s in jail right now. A lot of people are exiled or in self-imposed exile. But quite a few are still in Cairo and are still active in various ways, including radically feminist ways.
MC I think many women, myself included, weren’t raised to think about defending themselves. I was raised to think that if violence was being done to me, I would appeal to either the state or to an authority, or even just like random men around me, but that I couldn’t defend myself; that was not something I was capable of. And I know that that’s very culturally specific, and I know many other women did not get that stupid programming. But in Radius, it seemed like that was something that many Egyptian women had also heard. And one of the things that I’ve been thinking about is how the experience of defending yourself and others changes you. What does it do to a person?
YER I think it can become hard to stop. And I think that can be both a good and a bad thing. It can switch on a deeper, more embodied sense of connection and responsibility towards the people around you. Actually stepping in with one’s body, potentially putting one’s self at risk for the sake of someone else, be they a friend or stranger, especially in the kinds of conditions that Opantish was operating in — it’s high adrenaline, high-stakes stuff, and it’s incredibly meaningful for everybody involved. Especially when it is mobilized by a larger sense of political commitment, whether it’s feminist commitment or a deep belief that this is the only way to save the revolution itself. Or at least its soul, you know? Then it can be very hard to stop going out, and people can continue through phases of burnout, basically, when what they maybe need most is to take a breath, take a rest. But they feel unable to. And I think that’s true of a lot of direct-action activist work. Your sense of commitment can also turn against you, and ultimately it can even push you towards a kind of presence that’s no longer useful or beneficial for the rest of the group.
MC When what I can only describe as mass rape circles in Tahrir Square started happening, there was a tendency by some supporters of the revolution to say that the violence was only perpetrated by state security services. Or else they’d say, don’t focus on this, you’re sullying the name of the revolution, you’re dividing us. And what Opantish was saying was: No, these attacks are at the heart of what we’re fighting against, because if we don’t fight against them, women can’t exist in public.
YER This is something that’s discussed in the book from a couple of different perspectives. It’s a deep wound and a deep source of bitterness for a lot of people, especially people who were confronted or shamed directly by fellow activists for having spoken out or for wanting to center the violence that was happening to women and the need to do something about it. We have so many similar histories from around the globe, hundreds of years of brushing aside women’s issues. Even calling mass rape or the near-murder of people in the middle of a public square a “women’s issue” — the framing is fucked up, but this is what people were saying. “These are women’s issues, let’s not focus on this now, let’s focus on the bigger battle.” I think a lot of that response was coming from a place of just having no idea what the fuck to do about it and being afraid that this was going to be another thing that was going to quash a revolution that was already flailing by that point.
MC Can you talk about the current political climate in Egypt?
YER Egypt is a severely repressive and brutal military dictatorship in which journalists, researchers, activists, students — anybody who pursues any kind of free expression — is surveilled, policed, jailed, tortured, beaten. But unfortunately, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has also found alliances that are keeping him part of the international clubs he wants to be a part of. Egypt is about to host COP [the UN climate conference], which is ludicrous. Anybody who has spent any time in Egypt in the last few years can tell you that there are enormous mega-construction projects that the regime is carrying out, contracts that it is profiting from, that are displacing people from their homes and destroying entire neighborhoods in the process. That’s aside from the ecological impact, which is not even part of the calculation. As ever, the poor and people in rural areas bear the brunt of this kind of violence. And they are barely keeping the economy afloat with IMF loans and handouts from Gulf States.
MC What can someone reading this do right now to support the Egyptian feminist movement and the Egyptian revolutionaries who are still in jail or suffering horrific state repression?
YER I don’t ever want to overemphasize America’s importance, but, when it comes to Egypt and dealing with someone like Sisi, don’t ever think that what America does or doesn’t do diplomatically or politically doesn’t matter. I have not been living in the States these last few years, but I have the impression that among the left in the U.S. but also elsewhere there is an increased appetite and desire to be thinking internationally. And so, I would say just keep pushing in that direction. Contacts, communication, conferences, meetings — whether big forums or just private things — it’s so important and so mutually enriching.
And then the other thing I’d say channels the Egyptian political prisoner Alaa Abd El-Fattah, and the title of his book You Have Not Yet Been Defeated. It’s addressed to the English-speaking, Western audience, and it’s saying, fix your own democracy. Flawed as they are, you do have these processes, you do have something resembling the rule of law. Fight those fights. Fix your own democracy.
From Radius: A Story of Feminist Revolution
January 25, 2013
In her living room, T took the newly printed T-shirts out of the plastic bags they’d come in. She held one up and ran her fingers along the curled letters stenciled into red block on the front. “Against Assault,” the text said in Arabic.
T took off her jeans and pulled on a pair of long johns, and on top of them a blue one-piece swimsuit. A base layer of protection, hard to remove, impossible to rip. She pulled the straps over her shoulders, feeling the tightness around her chest. The restriction, normally uncomfortable, was now reassuring. She put a black tank top on over it, then her T-shirt.
She pulled her jeans back on over the long johns-swimsuit combination.
She planned to be with the so-called safety teams who take care of survivors once they had been pulled out of a mob. They were supposed to stand near the intervention teams, but to stay on the outside of the crowd, to not get pulled into the fighting. But T had learned to be ready just in case — things changed quickly, and she didn’t want to find herself unprepared.
Her worn-out old Nikes would come off too easily. She reached in the back of her closet for a pair of heavy boots she hardly ever wore.
Then she went to the mirror, thinking about her hair. A ponytail would be too easy to pull, an obvious target. She could pin it up and tie a scarf around it, pirate-style. Yes, that will do. At night, she’d pull the hood of her hoodie on too.
“AL-DAKHLIYYA! BALTAGIYYA!” (“Cops are thugs!”) The unmistakable rhythmic sound of chanting voices suddenly filled her bedroom. It was earlier than usual; Friday prayers had not even begun. It sounded like a small group, perhaps too eager to wait for the day’s activity to kick off. The sound moved past her, on its way, she assumed, to Tahrir.
It had been two years since mass protests broke out in 2011. Just like that, when they least expected it, when the stasis and corruption and police brutality underneath a veneer of slick neoliberal reforms had all but hollowed out any sense of imagination or political possibility, it was here, an actual revolutionary upheaval that threw Hosni Mubarak out of his 30-year presidency.
In the two years of ongoing, leaderless protest, Tahrir remained the symbolic heart of the revolution. It was here that the first marches headed on January 25, and it was here that they returned three days later, after 100 police stations were burnt to the ground around the country, after the government’s attempts to stop what had begun — including shutting down cell phone lines and the internet — did nothing to stop millions more from coming out into the street. Through each victory and each setback since, the feeling was that if Tahrir was lost, the whole dream of change would be lost with it. The way the revolution had become the center of T’s life, had become her life, was matter of fact, inevitable.
She looked at her outfit. Good enough.
The intervention teams were scheduled to be in the square at 7:00 p.m., an hour after dark, but the hotlines had already started ringing. Habiba picked up the first call.
“I need some harassment,” a guy said, the sound of the street behind him. She could hear the people around him laugh.
The next call was from a woman, and her voice was shaking down the line but she spoke quickly, urgently: “A group surrounded me and my friends and they started grabbing us, but then a guy drove a motorbike into the crowd, I think he was trying to help us by breaking things up. We were able to get away,” she said.
“Are you safe? Do you need anything?” Habiba asked.
“We’re in a café and we’re fine, we just wanted to let you know that this happened.”
On the paper in front of her, Habiba logged the call under “no intervention.”
She put the phones in her pockets and went out to look at the square. Arwa was standing on the other end of the balcony, looking down through her binoculars. “Come look at this,” she said.
Right beneath them at the beginning of Talaat Harb Street, a thick crowd was moving into the square. It was mostly men but toward the front of it, near the iron rail on the pavement, they could see a woman. The crowd around her looked tighter, and there was a lot of movement, but it was impossible to see what was actually happening.
“Shit, the intervention teams aren’t even here yet,” Habiba said.
The light was starting to fade, and from the far end of the square they could hear chants. “Justice for the martyrs!” protesters cried from below the banners.
T and Arwa stood on the balcony, watching the square below. The crowd they’d spotted half an hour earlier had dispersed and now a new one was moving — with surprising speed — toward the old Nile Hilton, on the opposite side of Tahrir. Then it changed direction and came down the square toward them.
Arwa picked up her video camera and followed it. It stopped at the juice shop a block away from them, swarmed in place for a few minutes. “I can’t see any woman,” she said. “Maybe she’s inside the shop?”
“I’ll go down in case someone’s in there,” T said.
“I don’t think it’s a good idea,” Arwa said, looking up from her camera.
But the crowd was breaking up. The people in it — there must have been about 60 of them — were no longer one mass. “Look, they’ve gone,” T said. “I’ll get someone to go with me.”
She grabbed a safety kit and rushed down to the lobby. There were half a dozen volunteers standing around, and one of them offered to go with her.
In the shop, a man was sitting on a plastic chair, watching a television. He looked up at them and then back at the screen.
“Was a woman brought in here just now from outside?” T asked him.
“She’s not here anymore, they took her,” he said, looking at T now.
“Took her where?”
(The smell of overripe oranges, of the sawdust on the floor.)
“I don’t know,” the man said, shrugging his shoulders.
“Who took her? Anyone wearing a T-shirt like these?” T asked.
“There’s no one here, lady,” he said and turned back to the television.
They went back outside and saw that a mass of people was moving toward Bab al-Louk Street.
“Come on,” T said, and she started running toward it.
As T and the volunteer pushed their way in, she used her elbows to make space around her. When the crowd moved in any direction it was a struggle to stay upright. She couldn’t see past the back of the person in front of her, and if she stood on her tiptoes her balance gave way in the heaving crush. No one was really looking at her, and she didn’t want to draw attention to herself yet by using her voice, so she just pressed on, elbowing her way through bit by bit.
When she reached the woman in the middle, she was not making a sound. Her face was frozen still, her mouth was closed. But her eyes would not stop moving in circles, darting fast around their sockets.
A man standing behind her had his arm around her shoulders, and he, like everyone around them, was shouting, “Get away from her!”
T tried to convince him to let her be the one to hold onto the woman, but he was adamant that he would not let her go. He had one arm around the woman’s shoulders and was using his free arm to push the crowd away.
“OK, OK, let me hold on to her, and you hold on to me. Let the women stick together, it’s better.”
He agreed to this. T put her hands on the woman’s shoulders, facing her, and told her, “I’m with you, I’m with you.” After the fourth or fifth time she said it, the woman finally looked at her.
The shouting around them continued.
“We’ll wait for an ambulance here!”
“No, we’ll take them to Shabrawy!”
T had no idea where the other volunteer had gone. But so far, these men were helping them, and this woman’s eyes had locked on to hers and stopped their panicked whirl.
The hotlines rang relentlessly.
“They tried to pull me into a microbus on Tahrir street.”
“I see a woman being attacked near KFC. She’s naked … completely naked.”
Habiba relayed information to the captains, to whomever she could get through to, and tried to keep a record of the calls coming in. Her hands stayed wrapped around the cell phone after each call, unable to let go.
“I have a group of guys here with me, we can help you, tell us what to do.”
“There’s a mob in front of Hardee’s, I think there’s a woman inside, she’s crushed against the iron rail, you need to send someone quick!”
T was still holding on to the woman she’d found in the mob, whose name she still didn’t know because she still wasn’t speaking.
There were about 50 men crammed into the shop, and they were all shouting.
“Sit over here!”
“No, don’t let her sit near the window, move her back here!”
There were two other women on the other side of the shop, and they seemed to be the sister and mother of the silent woman. They were each having completely different reactions to what was happening. The sister let out long, wordless screams, while the mother cried.
T and the other women were being manhandled and pushed and pulled as the men argued. No one was speaking to any of them except to order them where to go.
All T wanted was to gather the women in one spot, check them for injuries, and then to keep them all together, but the men wouldn’t let her move. She wasn’t able to think because it was so loud with shouting, and each suggestion or plan made by the men around her triggered a new set of possible disasters to worry about.
“WE’LL PUT THEM IN A MICROBUS!”
“WE’LL GO TO THE METRO!”
She still had no idea if any of her teammates knew where she was. Her cell phone, still with her, had no reception. If she could just gather them together and think for a minute, she could come up with something. She began shouting too: “I don’t want anyone to lay a finger on any woman here! Bring them here, they’re a family, let them stick together!”
To her surprise, her voice, the difference of it, made the men all stop and turn to her. They were silent for a long moment, but the way they looked at her made her think, What have I done?
T backtracked. “Look, we’re all women, let us be together, and let me just see if they need anything,” she said.
“SHE’S HERE TO HELP THEM, MAN, JUST PUT THE WOMEN TOGETHER AND WE’LL SEE WHAT WE’LL DO.”
They brought the other two women over and they all sat at a table. (On it, a half-eaten sandwich and a plate of pickles.) They weren’t injured but the mother was crying. She learned that the first woman she’d found was named Mona, and her sister was Mai. Mai had stopped screaming but was in a verbalized panic. “How are we going to get out of here?” she asked over and over again.
The owner of the shop had had enough. “Get this crazy shit out of here! That’s it, all of you, all of you, out, now!”
The shouting started again.
“WE’VE CALLED A MICROBUS TO COME AND GET THEM!”
Mai cried out, “I’m not getting into a microbus! Who knows where they’ll take us or what they’ll do! I’ll only get in an ambulance!”
“You’re right, you’re right,” T said. “We won’t do anything you don’t want to do.”
She tried to call Seif but she couldn’t get a connection.
She had to do something.
She raised her voice above the men again. “I’ve spoken to my group,” she shouted. “They’ve called an ambulance and it will be here in 10 minutes. If it’s not, then we’ll get in the microbus. Ten minutes, just give us 10 minutes.”
All she could do was buy time.
Leila tried to go back outside to rejoin what was left of the intervention teams.
The elevator wasn’t working so she ran down the stairs, which wrapped around the open elevator shaft. As she got closer to the ground floor, she heard a clamoring noise rising up, getting louder and louder. The lights on the landing switched off automatically and she hit the switch on the next floor, and then she started to hear the banging, men’s shouting voices. She paused when the lobby came into her view.
Volunteers were pushing against the building door from the inside, some of them holding onto a metal bar laced through its handles, pushing against it as if to reinforce its lock. The doorman was standing and pushing with them.
On the other side of the heavy glass doors was a crowd trying to break in.
She texted Habiba: “mob breaking into the building.”
She stood next to the doorman and planted her feet on the ground, put her hands on the bar, and pushed with all the weight she could summon.
“They saw women coming up,” the doorman said, shouting so she could hear him. “We had to fight them with sticks, but more and more kept coming. I cut the power from the elevator in case they break in. Who are we supposed to call? There’s no police, no one to come and help … we’re on our own.”
Time had run out for T and the three other women who were stuck in Shabrawy — the owner wanted them out. When the doors opened, T could see Marwan and Seif and more people in white T-shirts. Relief rushed through her.
They were being pushed out of the shop but the movement was slow, there were so many people around them. They had to walk out and around the corner to the ambulance. It was only 20 feet, but the minutes were taking hours. T was behind Mona and her mother, pushing them forward. There were hands everywhere. On T’s sides, on her neck, on her thighs, in the waist of her pants, in her underwear, in parts that we call private. There was a finger up her asshole. They — these men who were making such a performance out of helping them — were trying to separate her and the other women. Someone was trying to work the shoulder straps of her backpack off her shoulders, which would mean her hands would have to let go of the woman in front of her. So she turned to the other man behind her, whose finger was in her ass, and shouted, “He’s trying to steal my backpack! He’s stealing it!”
This man who was assaulting her suddenly turned hero, started yelling, “You motherfucking thief!” at whoever the perpetrator was, fighting him off with one arm while keeping the other in her jeans.
When they reached the ambulance, she couldn’t see Marwan or Seif or any of the volunteers. She and the other women half-climbed, were half-pushed by the crowd into the ambulance. Five men she didn’t know climbed in with them and then they were driving through the crowds in Tahrir, braking to a halt every few seconds. Each time the car braked, T and the other people in the back flew in different directions, hitting the sides of the ambulance like popping corn. She landed on top of Mona once, she landed on her back another time, and one of the men fell on top of her and kneaded her breasts.
“Stop this screaming!” the ambulance driver yelled back at them.
One of the women’s shirts rode up and the driver yelled, “Cover your sister up! Stop this now, otherwise I’ll let you all out right here.”
The ambulance took them to Qasr al-Ainy Hospital. A pair of doctors at admissions asked the four women, “Who were the men you’re saying attacked you?”
“You mean you didn’t know them?”
“Why did you go to the square?”
The family of women decided they didn’t want to check in or be examined, so they all walked back outside and T stopped a taxi to take them home. Mona, Mai and their mother had all been robbed of their money, so T gave the driver the cash in her pocket. They drove off, and she stood in front of the hospital facing the Nile, about a mile south of Tahrir. She had to get back to the operations room.
Suddenly, Leila felt the tension on the other side of the building door go slack. She saw people on the other side of the door pulling away, and then they were running down the street.
She heard the pop pop pop pop of the police’s tear gas canisters.
Thank God, she (an anarchist atheist) thought.
When T finally got back to the operations room, her relief was so great she felt elated. Triumphant.
Nahya’s face was frozen still. “Are you alright?”
“Yeah, it was shit, but I’m fine, I’m OK,” T said.
“Are you sure?” Nahya asked again.
“What’s wrong, why are you looking at me like that?” T asked.
She went to the bathroom and turned on the tap to wash her hands and face. When she looked in the mirror, she saw that her neck, her arms, and the right side of her forehead were covered in bruises that were starting to darken.
Oh, she thought. Oh.
Three years later, T said to me in an interview: “It was only then that I realized: it was me that was assaulted. That whole time, I’d thought I was superman. I thought they were the victims. What did I have to worry about? I was there to save them.”
There weren’t many people left in the operations room. I felt like I should stay until everyone else went home, but something inside of me had begun to fray.
Nahya was leaning against a wall, her arms crossed against her chest, looking out at the balcony where Farida was lying down next to a friend, quiet.
“It feels shit being up here,” she said. “I know I can’t go down, I know I can’t actually fight, I’m not ready. But it feels shit being up here.”
The square was empty and dark. The police had flooded it with tear gas, and there were young men fighting them with rocks and the occasional Molotov cocktail.
I kept walking toward my house. I didn’t feel danger here. This was familiar, this adrenaline, this sharpness in the air. I thought I could navigate this.
A year earlier, I would have known without question that I was on the side of these people fighting the police. Now I was no longer sure how many sides there were, who was on which side, if any of them were on ours. My house was just a few blocks away now, but when I saw a cab, I stopped it.
In the backseat, I saw I’d missed a call from Habiba and dialed back.
“Where are you?” she asked. Her voice was tight.
“In a cab going home, I thought it was better than walking right now.”
“Good, yeah, that makes sense,” she said.
“Should I come back? What’s going on?”
“No, no. It’s quieted down, people are leaving. The square’s still empty. You go to sleep.”
“Are you OK? Your voice…”
Her breath caught. When she spoke again her voice was quieter but higher in pitch. She was crying.
“A woman was raped with a knife in the square. Just now.”
I can’t remember what I felt as I heard this, whether the feeling was hot or cold. I only remember the yellow street-lamps out the window as we drove.
“I’ll come back.”
“No, no, it’s OK,” Habiba said. “Nahya’s going to the hospital with her. There’s nothing else to do right now.”
Two days later, we published this press release:
Opantish Press Release,
January 27, 2013
On Friday the 25th of January 2013, in the midst of large demonstrations marking the second anniversary of the beginning of the Egyptian revolution, horrific sexual crimes were committed against women in and around Tahrir Square. Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment/Assault (OpAntiSH) received 19 reports of group sexual assaults against women in the area, which included the use of life-threatening violence in some cases. The group was able to intervene in 15 cases, managing to rescue women from the attackers and escort them to safe houses or hospitals to receive the necessary medical attention.
These attacks represent a startling escalation of violence against women in Tahrir Square in terms of the number of incidents and the extremity of the violence which took place. In some cases blades and other weapons were used against women, OpAntiSH volunteers, and other people who tried to intervene. This phenomenon requires urgent attention and treatment, and is linked to the broader social problem of endemic and daily sexual harassment and assault of women.
OpAntiSH expresses extreme disappointment with revolutionary groups and political parties which call for demonstrations in Tahrir square and use the large turnouts for their political bargaining, but neglect their responsibility in securing the square and addressing these repeated sexual assaults against female participants. This reflects a reprehensible attitude of indifference towards violent sexual crimes which aim to terrorize women and prevent them from participating in demonstrations.
Despite the participation of some passersby, OpAntiSH views these assaults as inseparable from the long list of repressive tactics which have targeted Egyptian activists. OpAntiSH stresses that continuing to ignore the dangers women face in the ongoing struggle for justice in this country jeopardizes not only women’s participation but the very success of the revolution. At a time when the very presence of women in Tahrir Square carries the same level of risk and danger as approaching the front lines of battle, the women who insist on exercising their rights to participate in demonstrations should be respectfully viewed as a source of courage and inspiration. We are dismayed by the dismissive attitude taken by most political movements to their injuries.
January 27, 2013
A bath. How quaint, Leila thinks. Adam had insisted on it in his gentle, knowing way. “So you can keep going.” He’d run it for her the way she’d asked him to, a bit hotter than comfortable.
“Do you want me to stay or would you rather be alone?”
She squeezed his hand. “I think I need some time by myself.”
So she took off her clothes and felt for the bandage on her backside, on the right. She twisted around to look but she could only see the top of the gash. She walked toward the mirror and then thought better of it. Screw it, what’s the point. It had happened, she’d keep it clean and covered with Adam’s help. No need to make a thing of it.
She sat down into the hot water.
Her back felt heavy against the end of the tub. She’d slept in fits, stiff in the bed, holding Adam’s hand across the space between them, unable to imagine wanting to be touched ever again.
She leaned forward for the soap at the other end of the bathtub, and when she looked down she saw the streaks of pink in the water.
“You’re not a victim if you’re there by choice. You’re not a victim if you’re there by choice.”
She spoke to herself out loud, her voice low and thick as it bounced off the water, the walls, and the tiled floor.
January 30, 2013
Opantish Mission statement:
The idea that women’s clothes or their presence in certain places are the reason they are sexually assaulted is itself a kind of punishment to victims. Group sexual assaults are organized acts that try to affect women’s participation in the public field and especially the squares, sit-ins and mass protests.
At the first meeting for new volunteers after the anniversary attacks, people were spilling out of the conference room and into the hallway. We were in the offices of a human rights organization where a couple of the organizers worked and where small groups had had some of the earliest discussions back in the fall, before Opantish had a name or an identity. Now organizers rushed to move furniture to the back of the room to make space, and they asked people to sit on the floor.
Once everyone settled, T stood at the front of the room and spoke into a wireless mic. “We get asked a lot about whether women should be in intervention groups,” she said. “The truth is that each person should look very clearly at the risks of any role that they take on. That goes for men just as much as women.”
“While I was helping a woman, trying to get her out of a mob assault, we were separated from everyone else in the team,” she started. “I was assaulted myself. There is no shame in what happened to me or in what happened to her.”
Her voice picked up force. She had no tics, made no movements as she spoke. She held the mic with one hand and kept the other in her pocket. Her eyes — a remarkable gray — were steady as they moved around the room.
A young man sitting in the middle of the room raised his hand but didn’t wait for her to acknowledge him before he spoke. “But isn’t the truth that women are a liability — it’s not only that they become targets themselves, but also they don’t know how to fight, they can’t help the group in confronting these men …”
He was cut off not by T, but by Nahya.
“I’m going to stop you here,” Nahya said. “This group is about women, and as you can see it’s mostly organized by women. This isn’t about men coming in and saving women, saving their bodies or their honor.” Her eyes have lit up with anger, and she seemed to grow taller as she spoke.
“We are a feminist group, we’ve always made that clear,” she continued. “So we will never, ever tell women that there is something they cannot do in this group, and if you or anyone else has a problem with this, you really should just leave.”
The man didn’t respond, and he didn’t leave.
T took the mic back from Nahya.
“The other night, I learned something important that I had not really understood until I saw it. Many times, women under attack are in shock, and this can look very different in each case: They can be panicking, they can be catatonic and completely disconnected. They can’t trust men who say they are there to help them — it doesn’t matter what T-shirt they are wearing or what group they say they belong to. They can only trust a woman, they can only start coming back to themselves when they see other women or hear a woman’s voice. So when we insist on having women as part of our intervention, it’s not just about feminist principles; it’s also about practicality.”
Several women in the room nodded in agreement.
As we split into specialized teams, a tall, pale woman came up to me. She introduced herself and asked, “Where do you think I should go?”
“Is it your first time?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said. “I wanted to join before but I wasn’t really ready.”
“Do you think it’s safe for women to go with the intervention teams?” she asked.
“There are different risks with each role,” I said. I tried to be exact with my words. “Would it help if you talked with someone who’s been on intervention before — a woman?”
“You haven’t been on intervention?”
“No, I haven’t. Really, there’s a lot of other work to be done.”
“OK, well, maybe I’ll join the safety teams,” she said.
“I’ve been on safety before,” I offered. “It’s not as dangerous as intervention, but there are still some risks. You might get separated from your partner and find yourself alone. You might get harassed or become targeted. I don’t mean to discourage you …”
“That’s OK.” She looked me in the eye. “I’m so glad to be able to do something. I think if I had to hear about this happening one more time, and there was nothing I could do about it, I’d go crazy.”
“I know what you mean,” I said.
In a separate room, Seif and Leila led a meeting with the intervention teams. There were about 50 people there, about two-thirds men.
Leila could sense the women in the room watching her. Most of them were new and didn’t seem to know one another. She knew what they saw: an activist type with bags under her eyes, dressed in worn leather boots and the olive-green jacket she’d been wearing in cooler months since the revolution began. Her hair was short, her nails bitten down and scraggly, and she wore no makeup. Some of the other women shared this look, but others were much more coiffed. One woman, in heels and a pantsuit, looked like she’d come straight from an investment bank.
A woman sitting near the back asked, “Is there a system for trying to identify these men? Is it possible that some of them are repeatedly attacking women, I mean that they’re there over and over again?”
“We don’t have a system, but of course we talk between us when we debrief,” Leila said. “But the mobs are so chaotic that a lot of the time it’s impossible to tell who is doing what — people are attacking, are stealing, are filming, are there just fighting, and others are actually trying to help. This is why we decided early on not to try and identify or punish attackers. I personally don’t think it’s possible, and I think it would drag on and escalate the fighting when what we want to do is to get out of there as fast as possible. Our focus is on the woman.”
A young, clean-cut guy she’d never seen before raised his hand. “I heard there were guns that were pulled on people,” he said.
“There was one, yes. Some kid from the Black Bloc group threatened someone with it. But there has never been a gun on our side.”
“So what kind of weapons will we carry?”
There was an edge of excitement in his voice. Leila tried not to roll her eyes.
“After what happened on the 25, we can’t stop people from carrying tools to defend themselves. Some people carry American sticks (batons with a hidden switch blade), others carry electric tasers, others don’t carry anything. But the most dangerous thing one of us could do is to carry a weapon that we don’t know how to use,” she said.
A guy in the front row typed something into his phone, and Leila realized they should have asked people to leave their phones at the door. One recording of this kind of talk could land them all in military court.
Down the hall from the intervention teams, in a small conference room with a big glass window onto the corridor, the safety team volunteers gathered. T and Eman were in the lead. The atmosphere was nervous, almost tense. It was known that this was the team where a lot of women were assaulted, that others had been stranded, and that the team generally hadn’t been able to do its job.
But T and Eman had a plan. They didn’t know each other very well, but right away there was a clear respect between them. They wanted the team to be safe and efficient but, even more important, they wanted it to be able to work without direction from the core group.
When Eman lived in Dubai, where she’d worked as a corporate marketing expert and used her vacation time to backpack around the world, she’d said she would only move back to Cairo to work on sexual harassment. At the time of this meeting, she was living in her parents’ house in a faraway suburb because she hadn’t had time to find an apartment. Since she spent all her time in the center of the city, the trunk of her car was a sort of wardrobe: toiletries, spare clothes, a pair of salsa dancing shoes.
As she spoke, Eman used a whiteboard to draw a circular map of Tahrir with Xs marking where intervention teams and getaway cars would be stationed.
“So what we’ve learned,” she said, “is that the safety teams that carry the backpacks with the extra clothes — you guys — shouldn’t actually be moving within the intervention teams. It’s just too risky, the safety unit almost always ends up either getting dragged into the fight or completely separated from the team.”
Eman herself was attacked in November while carrying a safety kit on her back, but she didn’t share this.
“The getaway car system also wasn’t working,” she said. “We had one driver per car, and they usually weren’t able to navigate the crowds or figure out the fastest routes on their own, on top of communicating with the operations room and the intervention teams. Plus, most of the drivers were men, and women didn’t want to get into the cars with them.”
She tried not to speak too quickly. There was a lot to get through, and she wanted to make sure she was understood.
“So from now on we’ll put two people in each car: one to drive and the other to communicate with the rest of the group. And this second person’s job is ultimately to care for the women who come to the car. The driver can be a man or a woman, but this second person has to be a woman.”
A woman raised her hand and asked, “Is there any training on how to behave with women, with survivors, in situations like this?”
“Yes, this is very important,” T said. “There are some basics that we’re going to go over, about how to deal with survivors, how to be sensitive and not retraumatize someone. This isn’t just for new people — I think it’s useful for everyone to think about this, because we get caught up in what we’re doing and sometimes we forget.”
When the meetings end, I make copies of the signup sheets for each team and sit at someone’s computer to type them up and email them to the organizing group. I sign myself up for the safety team again, although I know I’ll also be involved in setting up the operations room.
Between the different sign-up sheets, there are more than 200 names in total.