Nahlah Ayed: On the front line in the old war against sexual assault

Brutal attacks against women at political protests in Cairo highlight the problem of everyday sexual assault and harassment in that city, and are pushing young women to fight against it in the open, the CBC's Nahlah Ayed writes.

Young women in conservative societies say they’ve had it

Taekowndo master Ramy Jerair Latchinian demonstrates a defensive move on assistant Patricia Stein at a class for women in Cairo on Feb. 7, 2013. (Nahlah Ayed/CBC)

The primary targets: throat, eyes and groin. After that, it’s the ears and the nose. "Whatever you do has to end the fight," counsels the taekwondo master.

The abbreviated prescription for swift self-defence is dispensed matter-of-factly by Ramy Jerair Latchinian at an exercise studio in the upscale Cairo neighbourhood of Maadi.

His techniques could help his female students win individual battles against sexual assault. But theirs is a full-scale war, fought daily on the streets — and lately, at almost every political protest against the government.

A participant gestures during a self-defence class in Cairo on Feb. 7, 2013 (Nahlah Ayed/CBC)

"Sexual harassment has always existed in this society," says Zainab Sabet, an activist and a member of Tahrir Bodyguard, a fledgling anti-harassment group that organized the session.

"But what's happening now is more of a political thing. I wouldn't call it even sexual harassment. I think it's sexual violence against women. It's very well-organized and it's done to really stop women from going and protesting."

The shocking attacks, occasionally caught on camera, show large groups of men swarming a single female, taking her clothes off, groping and even raping her.

They have become so commonplace — and the angry reaction to them so vocal — that they've caught the attention and invited the wrath of everyone from Amnesty International to the United Nations.

They've also served to highlight the root problem of everyday sexual assault and harassment here, and to push young women to fight against it in the open.

Fierce resistance

One of the world's oldest wars is flaring up in conservative societies like Egypt's. The front lines in the battle against sexual assault are now in places like Cairo and Delhi, where the attacks are common and increasingly violent, and resistance to ending it seems equally fierce.

Both cities were recently outraged by singular incidents that highlighted a buried problem. And the similarities in Cairo and in Delhi — both places I had the chance to visit recently and discuss the subject — are breathtaking.

Women feel they are considered fair game: harassed, groped, assaulted in public — even raped — with near impunity. In both places, women are still seen as having a role in society that is second to a man's, and one that is still intertwined with a family's honour.

"These traditional views of what a woman's role should be are currently being challenged in a changing world," says Eba'a El-Tamami of Harassmap, an Egyptian organization whose research into sexual violence is supported by the Canadian International Development Research Centre.

Appalling behaviour

Increasingly in both places, women are joining the workforce and reaching beyond those traditional expectations.

That may be one explanation of what must be a multitude of reasons for such appalling behaviour.

But the bottom line, El-Tamami and other experts in both places tell me, is that somehow, at some point, sexual harassment became socially acceptable.

The only thing more shocking than the 2008 Egyptian Centre of Women's Rights' survey indicating that 83 per cent of local women and 98 per cent of foreign women experienced harassment in Egypt is the 62 per cent of male respondents who admitted they did it.

The group Tahrir Bodyguard put on a self-defence class to help women protect themselves in Cairo on Feb. 7, 2013. (Nahlah Ayed/CBC)

Somehow, at some point, it also became OK to witness harassment in public and do nothing about it. When it happened, it became the norm to blame women, what they wear — or what they don't. As a "shameful" occurrence, it also became the norm for family, spouses, society, even the perpetrators, to expect women to keep their mouths shut.

Somehow, women were adjusting their own behavior to avoid harassment. In Delhi, for example, they structured their entire day around getting home at a certain time to avoid being alone with men in the underground metro. In Cairo, they stayed home or close to home at all times to avoid groping on the street.

And somewhere along the line — maybe always — women stopped trusting the male-dominated police in both places to investigate and help bring such cases to court.

In both cities, examples were cited of complainants either being dismissed or ignored, and perhaps even harassed further by members of the police.

Tired of waiting

Young Egyptian and Indian women have grown weary of waiting for the state to do something, and in the face of recent shocking incidents they’re acting on their own — whether through protests, raising awareness or direct action.

In Egypt, Tahrir Bodyguard is just one of several groups that have banded together to form Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment, a growing team of men and women who have formed a kind of hardcore swat team that will intervene in the mob sexual assaults in Tahrir Square protests and retrieve the victim and get her to safety.

A key member of that coalition is also Harassmap, whose army of volunteers have long been on the front lines using other approaches, working in their own communities for example to destroy myths and establish safe spaces for women to seek shelter in case of emergency.

Women take part in a self-defence class in Cairo on Feb. 7, 2013. Women often find themselves alone when assaulted or harassed on the streets in Cairo. (Nahlah Ayed/CBC)

"When someone tells us [harassment happens] because of what she wears, or it’s only unveiled women who wear tight clothes who get harassed, you say actually, 'No,' " says El-Tamami.

"Veiled women get harassed, old women get harassed, young women get harassed, all women of all ages and social classes."

After decades of activism produced only incremental progress, today's youthful fightback seems to be working.

It took a while, but the outcry in India over the rape and murder of a university student in December yielded some results: a new court to expedite cases of sexual assault and a new law this month that toughens penalties.

In Cairo, as in Delhi, the sustained work of many activists has made sexual assault the subject of numerous recent Egyptian television shows and newspaper editorials. Prime Minister Hisham Qandil is promising to deliver a new law soon on sexual harassment and assault that would impose harsher punishment.

Major setbacks

There have also been big setbacks. In a comment that isn't the first of its kind, a cleric said on television this month that women who go to Tahrir Square to protest go because they want to get raped.

Even worse, several members of the human rights committee of Egypt’s upper house who had been looking at sexual assault blamed women last week.

The woman is to blame "when she chooses to protest in places filled with thugs," said one member, adding women bring on rape when they put themselves in a position that "makes them subject to rape."

"They are completely relieving the Ministry of the Interior of protecting the people and blaming the women," says Rana Allam, managing editor of the English Daily News Egypt. "They're saying, 'Let's put women in their homes and stay there, and shut up.' "

Egyptian protesters shout anti-Muslim Brotherhood slogans during a demonstration in Tahrir Square in Cairo on Feb. 11, 2013. A sharp increase in mob attacks on women has dissuaded many of them from going to protests. (Amr Nabil/Associated Press)

Such comments just seem to motivate youthful activists. Groups say a growing number of young women — and men — are signing up to combat the problem on the streets and at protests alike.

Others fight back by returning to protests time and again despite the danger. But they now come prepared, some carrying a stun-gun-like weapon, for example, or a simple knife.

The volunteer instructors at the Maadi class counsel women against carrying weapons because they can be used against them.

Patricia Stein, a transplanted American who has practised taekwondo for years, says it's more about how women carry themselves.

'Stand tall'

One night, she herself managed to grab one assailant by his throat and hit him in the eye after he groped her on a Maadi street.

"They don’t expect you to fight back, they're so shocked that they just run," she said.

"Half the battle is knowing how to carry yourself. If you're able to stand tall and walk like you know how to do anything … it could possibly save you."

The students were appreciative, though some felt two hours was hardly enough to master the moves.

"Actually I have been looking for such a course for a long time, even before the revolution, because it's not safe to walk anymore," said Rania Muhammed.

"Now when I'm walking and I feel steps behind me, I move to the other side of the road. It's not safe anymore, society is changing a lot."

It certainly is. And as in the revolution itself, it's the youth who are bent on changing it again.