Danger in Tahrir Square: Mob sexual violence in Egypt

Tahrir Square,Egypt.Photo courtesy of answersafrica.com
Tahrir Square, Egypt.
Photo courtesy of answersafrica.com

By Teodora Drăgulescu

Mass sexual assaults in Egypt’s Tahrir Square have become a grim hallmark of the site synonymous with the Arab Spring protests. Successive regimes have turned a blind eye to mob rape and sexual harassment, tacitly sanctioning society to enact violence against women.

Sexual harassment has long been a problem in Egypt, but mob assaults have dramatically intensified in both frequency and brutality in the four years since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak. In an unprecedented move in June 2014, an Egyptian criminal court in Cairo sentenced nine men to lengthy prison terms (2) for participating in the kind of mob sexual assaults against women that have become pervasive, particularly in the iconic Tahrir Square.

This paper explores the particulars of the street sexual violence that has drastically escalated since the Arab Spring revolution in 2011. To that purpose, it first focuses on the cultural and societal forces that underpin this unprecedented scale of sexual violence in the country, followed by an analysis of the profile of the perpetrators and the pattern of mob sexual assaults. Finally, it examines the current legislation to protect women, offering recommendations for improvement.

Cultural and societal forces at play

Against the backdrop of patriarchal belief systems and longstanding institutionalised discrimination against women in Egypt, sexual harassment and other forms of violence have been socially legitimised and underpinned by a culture of silence and impunity. According to an April 2013 UN Women study, 99.3% of all Egyptian women surveyed experienced sexual harassment regardless of professional or socio-economic background, marriage status, age or behaviour, with 96.5% of the reported harassment in the form of unwanted touch.(3)

Egypt’s conservative culture not only condemns women who speak out against such assaults, but also teaches that being the victim of sexual violence brings shame upon the victim.(4) As a result, women are often reluctant to report incidents of harassment or sexual violence. The common discourse surrounding gender-based violence (GBV) puts the blame on the survivor, who is considered to have “asked for it” or invited it in some way. More than 90% of men in Egypt attribute harassment to what they see as a woman’s provocative clothing, inviting conduct, enticing make-up, disregard for cultural traditions, way of walking or talking, or having extramarital relations.(5) Victims of sexual crime are often discouraged from filing complaints by their own family, as “they say if you report it, you won’t get a husband. You’ll be damaged goods.”(6) On the other hand, when they do report sexual harassment or violence, it rarely leads to the conviction of the perpetrators. The resulting climate of impunity further contributes to the social acceptance of sexual harassment. According to the UN Women study, 14% of survivors who had made a complaint to the police reported being mocked by them, while 6% of women surveyed said that they had been harassed by law enforcement officers.(7)

As Alan Al Aswany asserts in his opinion piece in the New York Times, there is a malignant convergence of the ways in which religious fundamentalists and political tyrants treat women in Egypt.(8) Some Wahhabis (9) consider harassment a just retribution for a woman who exposes any part of her body.(10) “I challenge the notion that a single woman in a niqab has been molested. The women who get harassed are those in slutty clothing,”(11) declared the Salafist (12) preacher Abdallah Badr. Another radical Islamist preacher, Ahmad Mahmoud Abdullah, suggested that women protesting in Tahrir Square “have no shame and want to be raped.”(13) Their rhetoric reduces the female body to a sexual commodity andawra, something indecent that needs to be covered. Likewise, in February 2013, members of the Shura Council, Egypt’s upper house of parliament, blamed women for the assaults carried out on them in Tahrir Square. Reda Saleh El Hefnawy, member of the Freedom and Justice Party, the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), said, “I call on women not to stand next to men in protests…They must have special places. I wonder, how can we ask the Ministry of Interior to protect a woman who stands amongst men?”(14) Such comments reflect the ultra-conservative belief that women should not engage in the political process, and promote gendered segregation as a deterrent against sexual harassment.(15)

In placing the responsibility on women, the state has been condoning mob sexual violence, and has made no effort to change how the media deals with the issue. Coverage of sexual crime remains problematic, with the majority of reporting activities subscribing to the same victim-blaming paradigm. For instance, while commenting on a group sexual harassment incident in March 2014 at Cairo University, Egyptian TV host Tamer Amin condemned the victim for wearing provocative clothes and called her a “hooker.”(16)

Patterns of violence and activism attempts

Accounts given by survivors, rescuers and doctors have allowed for the delimitation of a pattern of mob sexual violence. In a typical attack lasting from a few minutes to more than an hour, hundreds of men, mostly in their twenties and thirties, surround lone women in a so-called “circle of hell,” touching and groping their bodies — including their breasts, genitals and buttocks — removing their clothes and violating them by using their hands or sharp objects.(17) Women are then violently dragged to different locations until they are rescued or perpetrators abandon them.(18) The weapons employed, generally knives and sticks, are also used to fight off individuals attempting to help the victims.

According to Nazra for Feminist Studies, a coalition of women’s rights associations, such attacks are “calculated and organised so as to scare women away from the public sphere, punish them for their participation and keep them at home.”(19) This pattern of sexual violence targeting women is reminiscent of the “Black Wednesday” episode on 25 May 2005, when the Egyptian police under the Mubarak regime set a group of thugs loose on women demonstrators to stop them from taking part in protests.(20) The politically motivated sexual assaults have continued after the ouster of Mubarak.(21) During the subsequent 16-month rule of the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF), women were repeatedly targeted by security and armed forces and subjected to sexual and gender-based violence in detention, including forced “virginity tests” and threats of rape,(22) and this violent treatment spread beyond the prisons — when the state enacts unjustified sexual violence against women, it also sanctions the public to follow its example. Throughout the night of Morsi’s departure alone, more than 80 women were subjected to mob sexual assaults, from being stripped naked and dragged on the ground, to gang rape.(23)

In response to the failure of the security forces to protect women, two rescue groups, Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment and Tahrir Bodyguard, were established in November 2012. Volunteers from these organisations escort women, especially during political gatherings and public holidays, when such attacks tend to intensify. Activists offer self-defence classes and social networking sites have launched ‘name and shame’ actions.(24) Several projects against widespread sexual harassment have been initiated, including HarassMap and I Saw Harassment. Although such initiatives have had some success in preventing attacks and assisting survivors, the state must not be absolved from its responsibility to protect women against violence.

Deficient legislative framework

Successive governments have lacked the political will to enact legislation to combat violence and discrimination against women. For the first time, the Egyptian Constitution adopted in January 2014 explicitly refers to state commitment to the protection of women against all forms of violence.(25) However, enforcement has been lagging far behind what would be required for full compliance.

Former interim president Adly Mansour, issued a decree on 5 June 2014 making sexual harassment a crime, punishable by up to five years in prison or fines from US$ 400 to US$ 7,000. Sexual harassment, which was previously legal, is defined as any sexual or pornographic suggestion through words, signs or actions and by any means, including wired and wireless communication methods.(26) The decree also describes the harasser as a person seeking “an interest of sexual nature.”(27) Although the decree itself is welcome, this definition puts the focus on the intention of the perpetrator, allowing for endless interpretation instead of highlighting the absence of consent and assessing the damage suffered by the survivor. Additionally, it fails to recognise that harassment is not a part of sexual attraction but a form of coercion, underpinned by the deep-seated discrimination against and objectification of women, inherent to the mainstream way of thinking in Egyptian society.

Article 268 of the Penal Code defines the crime of “indecent assault” or hatk ‘ird as “violating the honour of another with the use of force or threats, or attempting to do so,” a provision applied by prosecutors in cases of physical harassment that include touching, grabbing, groping or ripping the clothes of the victim.(28) Due to the narrow definition of rape under article 267 as non-consensual intercourse between a man and a woman, anal rape or rape with a part of the body other than the penis or with an object are often charged as hatk ‘ird.(29) The term has negative connotations for the victim as it implies that the honour of the assaulted woman has been tarnished. Furthermore, the amalgamation under the same legal definition of offences of varying degrees may discourage victims from reporting more minor crimes.

On top of the legislation not adequately defining violence against women, the lack of willingness to investigate and prosecute offenders has maintained the climate of impunity. At least 250 cases of “mass sexual rape and mass sexual assault” occurred between late 2012 and January 2014.(30) Despite the pervasiveness of mob sexual crime in the country, only a handful of cases have been investigated and resulted into convictions, and even those were largely due to the public outrage caused by footage of one of the assaults.(31) From July to August 2014, a total of nine men received life prison sentences and three others were jailed for 20 years, on accounts of indecent assault and attempted rape committed during celebrations following Al-Sisi’s election.(32)

Concluding remarks

Developed from the levels of sexual harassment and assault pre-existing in the Mubarak era, mob sexual violence in post-revolutionary Egypt has reached intolerable levels. Authorities need to adopt a comprehensive national strategy to address the widespread violence against women. Firstly, legal provisions to combat gang rape, marital rape, domestic violence and female genital mutilation should be introduced and legislation on rape amended in compliance with Egypt’s obligations under international human rights law. Secondly, full and independent investigations need to be conducted into allegations of mass sexual violence associated with protests and public holidays dating back to January 2011, and perpetrators brought to justice. Authorities should also ensure that survivors of GBV receive adequate treatment, including necessary medical and psychological care, and that the ban on virginity tests is enforced. Agents of the justice system at all levels should receive training on effective prevention and prosecution of sexual violence crimes. And above all, they must stop blaming survivors for the violence they’ve endured.

The backlash against women in Egypt is a bitter and menacing reality, illustrating that the end of dictatorship does not necessarily translate into democratic rule for all. Having been at the forefront of the Arab Spring, women deserve to be safe and valued as equal citizens, rather than punished for their civic engagement with sexual violence.


(1) Teodora Drăgulescu is a Research Associate at IOA. Her main research interests are human rights and transnational terrorism in Africa. Contact Teodora through IOA’s South African office (info@inonafrica.com). Edited by Liezl Stretton. Research Manager: Mandy Noonan.
(2) ‘Egypt still has a sexual assault problem’, AlJazeera, 17 July 2014, http://america.aljazeera.com.
(3) ‘Poll: Egypt worst Arab state for women’, AlJazeera, 12 November 2013, http://america.aljazeera.com.
(4) Eltahawy, M., ‘Egypt has a sexual violence problem’, New York Times, 20 June 2014, http://www.nytimes.com.
(5) Abdelkader, E., ‘99.3% of Egyptian women, girls have been sexually harassed’, The Huffington Post, 6 April 2013,http://www.huffingtonpost.com.
(6) ‘Egypt: Keeping women out – Sexual violence against women in the public sphere’, International Federation for Human Rights, 16 April 2014,https://www.fidh.org.
(7) ‘Study on ways and methods to eliminate sexual harassment in Egypt. Results/Outcomes and Recommendations Summary’, UN Women, April 2013, http://harassmap.org.
(8) Aswany, A., ‘The politics of Egypt’s sexual violence’, New York Times, 21 July 2014, http://www.nytimes.com.
(9) Wahhabism is a puritanical form of Sunni Islam mainly practiced in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, but the term is broadly applied outside of the Arabian peninsula to refer to a Sunni Islamic movement that seeks to purify Islam of any innovations or interpretations deviating from the Quran and the Prophet’s practices. However, in most Muslim nations, adherents to this creed prefer to call themselves Salafists.
(10) Aswany, A., ‘The politics of Egypt’s sexual violence’, New York Times, 21 July 2014, http://www.nytimes.com.
(11) Ibid.
(12) See comment at footnote 8.
(13) Ramdani, N., ‘Sexual violence in Egypt: The target is a woman’, The Guardian, 9 July 2013, http://www.theguardian.com.
(14) ‘Egypt: Keeping women out – Sexual violence against women in the public sphere’, International Federation for Human Rights, 16 April 2014,https://www.fidh.org.
(15) Isolating women from the rest of society paves the way for further marginalisation and sexual commodification. Instead of being seen as equal human beings, women become objects of sexual gratification, made all the more desirable by being removed from public life. In February 2013, segregated carriages were introduced on several popular transport routes between Cairo and Alexandria in order to protect women from harassment. See more: Dyer, E., ‘Marginalising Egyptian women: The restriction of women’s rights under the Muslim Brotherhood’, The Henry Jackson Society, 2013, http://henryjacksonsociety.org.
(16) Khater, M., ‘Sexual harassment still pervasive in Egypt, despite new law’, Daily News Egypt, 24 November 2014,http://www.dailynewsegypt.com.
(17) Kingsley, P., ‘80 sexual assaults in one day – the other story of Tahrir Square’, The Guardian, 5 July 2013, http://www.theguardian.com.
(18) ‘Egypt: Gender-based violence against women around Tahrir Square’, Amnesty International, February 2013, http://www.amnestyusa.org.
(19) ‘Egypt: Keeping women out – Sexual violence against women in the public sphere’, International Federation for Human Rights, 16 April 2014,https://www.fidh.org.
(20) Aswany, A., ‘The politics of Egypt’s sexual violence’, New York Times, 21 July 2014, http://www.nytimes.com.
(21) Ibid.
(22) ‘Egypt: Keeping women out – Sexual violence against women in the public sphere’, International Federation for Human Rights, 16 April 2014,https://www.fidh.org; Al-Sisi, the head of the military intelligence at the time, defended ‘virginity tests’ on the ground that proof of virginity would protect the army against ‘false’ accusations of rape, implying that the crime can only be inflicted on virgins.
(23) Kingsley, P., ‘80 sexual assaults in one day – the other story of Tahrir Square’, The Guardian, 5 July 2013, http://www.theguardian.com.
(24) ‘Egypt’s outgoing president criminalises sexual harassment’, The Huffington Post, 6 May 2014, http://www.huffingtonpost.com.
(25) ‘Egypt: Keeping women out – Sexual violence against women in the public sphere’, International Federation for Human Rights, 16 April 2014,https://www.fidh.org.
(26) ‘Sexual harassment made a crime in Egypt’, AlJazeera, 6 June 2014, http://www.aljazeera.com; ‘The mob-sexual assaults and gang rapes in Tahrir Square during celebrations of the inauguration of the new Egyptian president is sufficient proof for the inefficiency of the recent legal amendments to combat these crimes. Joint Statement’, Nazra for Feminist Studies, 9 June 2014, http://nazra.org.
(27) ‘Egypt’s president makes sexual harassment a crime’, Mail & Guardian, 5 June 2014, http://m.mg.co.za.
(28) ‘Egypt: Keeping women out – Sexual violence against women in the public sphere’, International Federation for Human Rights, 16 April 2014,https://www.fidh.org.
(29) Ibid.
(30) McCoy, T., ‘Egypt’s sexual harassment pandemic – and the powerlessness of hashtags’, The Washington Post, 18 June 2014,http://www.washingtonpost.com.
(31) The video of a 19-year old student stripped naked and assaulted by a mob during rallies marking Al-Sisi’s presidential inauguration on 8 June 2014 caused outrage both in Egypt and overseas. In an attempt to show his willingness to tackle Egypt’s sexual violence epidemic, Al-Sisi visited one of the several women hospitalised as a result of mass attacks during 3–8 June 2014. See the video: http://www.huffingtonpost.com.
(32) Kingsley, P., ‘Egypt jails nine men convicted of sexual assault during Sisi inauguration rally’, The Guardian, 16 July 2014,http://www.theguardian.com; ‘2 sentenced to life for sexual assault’, Daily News Egypt, 7 August 2014, http://www.dailynewsegypt.com.