Egyptians working to reclaim Tahrir Square tainted by sexual assaults on women

Last Updated: Sun, Feb 03, 2013 13:08 hrs

Washington: Fed up Egyptians are making it their job to prevent and rescue women at Tahrir Square, the epicenter of Egypt's uprising, which has become a terrifying place for women as sexual assault has become more common and violent.

Tahrir Square has become a place where women feel increasingly unsafe as sexual assaults during protests that has become more numerous and violent.

During a large protest a week ago to mark the second anniversary of the uprising, at least 25 assaults were reported. In one case, a woman was sexually assaulted with a blade.

According to the Christian Science Monitor, the escalation of assaults spurred Egyptians to take action against them.

Several groups have been formed, organizing to prevent such attacks, rescuing women who are attacked, and raise awareness about an issue that is not often openly addressed.

As thousands gather in Tahrir to protest against President Mohamed Morsi, dozens of volunteers are risking their own safety to try to make the square a place where women can exercise their rights without fear.

Police have not been present within the square during protests since the uprising, and those on the edges of it are often engaged in clashes with protesters.

Mohamed El-Khateeb, one of the volunteers for Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment/Assault, the most organized group working against assault in the square, said that they cannot be silent as the violence against women cannot be tolerated.

He added that 'he knew it was a risky thing, but it's a fight. And they shouldn't let the attackers win.'

Sexual harassment of women is a common phenomenon on the streets in Egypt and in Tahrir during protests.

Men often make lewd comments or catcalls at passing women, and groping is common. But the mob-like sexual assaults in Tahrir are far more violent than the average street harassment, and, according to those working on the issue, appear to be organized attacks, the report said.

According to the report, it was CBS reporter Lara Logan's sexual assault by a crowd in Tahrir square on Feb. 11, 2011, the day former President Hosni Mubarak relinquished power, that first made sexual assault in Tahrir headline news.

Female journalists and protesters have continued to face assaults in the square, with attacks on foreign journalists usually gaining more attention than those of Egyptians.

But the attention has done nothing to decrease its prevalence. A rash of assaults during protests in November spurred activists to fight back.

The biggest group working to safeguard women is Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment/Assault, known as OpAntiSH, a cooperative effort supported by at least 11 civil society groups and movements.

Last week the group had nearly 100 volunteers in Tahrir during the protests.

The group divides volunteers into groups with specific tasks - there are "extraction" teams, whose members try to rescue women from the mobs, and others who carry bags filled with clothes and medical supplies the women might need after the assault.

After the women are extricated, they are typically taken to a "safe house" or hospital. Others man the group's hotlines, taking calls reporting assaults and directing volunteers on the ground towards them.

Other smaller groups have also sprung up, including one called Tahrir Bodyguard. That group also sends lookouts and uniformed patrols of volunteers into the square to help women in trouble.

The groups face a huge challenge. Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment/Assault received 19 reports of assault in Tahrir on Jan. 25 alone, and was able to intervene in 15, its member Yasmin El-Rifae, who also works at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, said.

OpAntiSH released a scathing statement this week blaming political parties and movements for calling protests in Tahrir without providing for the safety of those who attend, and for failing to publicly condemn the assaults on women, the report added. 

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