Sexual assault and the state: A history of violence
This article contains strong language and graphic sexual content.
Hend (not her real name), an outspoken political activist, is used to being watched and threatened.
She rose to prominence during the January 25 revolution and says that by the end of 2011 she was regularly receiving anonymous phone threats. On the day of a planned political protest or meeting, the voice would tell her that she should prepare herself to be “fucked” that evening.
She was temporarily banned from television appearances because of her criticism of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and its abuses; the producers telling her they feared for their own wellbeing if they hosted her. A video was posted on YouTube of fabricated pictures of Hend in sexually suggestive poses with a man.
“It was very obvious that it was created by pro-SCAF trolls. My family saw the video. It was bad, and damaging, but I continued,” Hend says.
Between June 2012 and July 2013, during the presidency of Mohamed Morsi, the threats stopped but online insults continued. But they took a different tone. Whereas under SCAF’s rule the insults had focused on her honor and chastity as a woman, in the Morsi era they focused more on religion. It was an important difference, and one that would figure in events to come.
Hend is not a Brotherhood member or supporter. But in the run-up to June 30 and Morsi’s removal by the military following mass protests, she said publicly that Egypt was in store for a coup, and that she feared Brotherhood rule would be replaced by what she described as Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s brand of “military religious fascism.”
She publicly denounced the clearing of the Rabea al-Adaweya sit-in in August 2013 as a massacre. At this point, she says, the telephone threats started again. On social media, she was called a “Brotherhood whore." Someone tweeted her telephone number and described her as a Brotherhood supporter. Surveillance by plainclothes men, which had started under SCAF but stopped under Morsi, intensified.
Three men on rotating four or five-hour shifts stationed themselves outside her home, she says. They followed her. On one occasion one of the men followed her to a café, sat at the table next to her and ordered coffee.
“Then he looked me in the face and photographed me,” Hend says.
“The monitoring isn’t about keeping tabs, it’s a threat to tell me that they’re watching me,” she adds.
Matters worsened at the end of 2013. She has long known that her phone was tapped, but then printouts of her emails and private online chats with her partner were slipped under her door. At the beginning of December 2013, she was asked to go to the headquarters of the National Security Agency.
“They played good cop, bad cop with me. An officer said, ‘You’re educated, you can travel. Why don’t you leave the country?’ Then they told me that they had recordings of me speaking about the military during the SCAF era and that they would hand them over to the media and claim that they were made recently. ‘The people will eat you alive,’ he told me.”
Hend says she then received threats of violence ahead of a march to parliament the same month. She was told by security personnel that she would be arrested under the newly passed Protest Law which made protests held without permission from the Interior Ministry illegal.
On December 26, Hend was alone late at night in a secluded, non-residential, street of central Cairo. She remembers that it was icy cold. As she was putting things in a car she had borrowed from a friend, three men appeared from behind and grabbed her.
Women’s and human rights groups in Egypt have long argued that the country suffers from a chronic sexual harassment problem. Some of this “harassment” takes the form of serious sexual assault, most commonly mob attacks in the anonymity of large crowds. Since 2011, these assaults have occurred most often during political demonstrations. Political forces have routinely blamed each other, alleging the attacks were meant to destabilize or discredit whoever was in power.
Prior to this, most reported incidents of mob attacks took place primarily in Eid holiday crowds, when throngs of young men, seemingly emboldened by moving in a pack, attacked women. In 2006, one such incident was filmed and uploaded, and society was finally forced to acknowledge the existence of the problem. But many continued to downplay it or blame the victim. Harassmap, a campaign launched in 2010, specifically aims to “end the social acceptability of sexual harassment and assault in Egypt” by encouraging people to speak up when they witness an incident.
Until recently, the Egyptian state has consistently failed to enforce laws criminalizing sexual assault. The state has in fact used sexual violence as the ultimate weapon to quash dissent. Naguib Mahfouz’s novel “Karnak,” published in 1974 and made into a motion picture starring Soad Hosni, features the rape of a student in front of her boyfriend while they are being held by police.
Egyptian NGO Al-Nadeem Center for the Rehabilitation of the Victims of Violence and Torture has, over the years, produced numerous reports detailing the torture and sexual assault of men and women inside places of detention. One of these cases includes that of Amal Farouk, who reported that in the mid-1990s she was repeatedly raped while in police custody to force her to reveal the whereabouts of her husband, wanted on criminal charges.
Society’s ignoring or belittling of the problem, its socially conservative attitude towards women and sex and a general atmosphere of repression all combine to allow security forces to commit sexual assaults with impunity. What better way to silence opponents in this patriarchal society, where a sex scandal is a huge social stigma, and where victim-blaming is the norm?
During a demonstration by Kefaya, the Egyptian Movement for Change, on May 25, 2005, Hosni Mubarak’s Interior Ministry let plainclothes thugs loose on protesters. Female protesters were sexually assaulted while police forces penned them in. One journalist, Nawal Ali, was almost entirely stripped of her clothes under the eyes of security officials who did not intervene. Ali was smeared in the media and accused of ripping her own clothes off. Last year, the African Commission for Human and Peoples’ Rights held the Egyptian government responsible for the attack and ordered it to pay compensation to the four women claimants, which the government has yet to pay. Ali, however, passed away in 2009.
The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), which filed the case with the African Commission, describes the tactics used on what was dubbed Black Wednesday as an attempt to exclude women from public life and punish them for participating in political activism.
The events of Black Wednesday were not the first of their kind. What made the assault different is that it was caught on camera, the images shocking and irrefutable.
“It took place in public and in such an organized manner, leaving no doubt that it was planned and premeditated. It involved National Democratic Party figures who were competing for the favor of the party in the next elections. And contrary to what the assault was meant to achieve, it was met by defiance from the women and their female relatives. At the time the police had crossed a line and miscalculated,” Aida Seif al-Dawla, a psychiatrist with Al-Nadeem Center, said.
But if it was a turning point, Black Wednesday marked the start of a deterioration, a clear convergence of state repression and sexual violence. It has become an established tactic that security forces continue to use against both men and women.
In March 2011, female protesters arrested in Tahrir Square were stripped and subjected to so-called virginity tests while surrounded by soldiers. Sisi, who is now Egypt’s president, defended the “tests,” saying that they had been done to “protect the girls from rape, and the soldiers and officers from accusations of rape.” CNN quoted an unnamed army officer as saying that the detained women “were not like your daughter or mine. These were girls who had camped out in tents with male protesters in Tahrir Square.”
One of the victims, Samira Ibrahim, filed a lawsuit. But the courts eventually exonerated the military doctor who conducted the tests.
On December 16, 2011, during clashes outside the cabinet building following the dispersal by the military of a sit-in, female detainees were “subjected to insults of a sexual nature for being present at the sit in,” Egyptian women’s rights NGO Nazra said in a statement issued at the time.
“The use of sexual violence against female activists cannot be seen outside the context of attempts by the military establishment to marginalize women and prevent them defending their rights and exercising their right to actively participate in the politics of the country,” the statement reads.
The most notorious image that came out of the December 2011 violence was that of a female protester knocked to the ground by army soldiers, who then proceeded to kick and stomp on her body, on live television. During the attack the victim’s coat came open, revealing her bra. Commentators later questioned why she was wearing a garment that opened so easily and nothing but a bra underneath. The identity of the woman has never been revealed, and the soldiers responsible for the attack never held to account.
After they grabbed Hend, the three men frog marched her toward a wall. She says that one man, tall and sturdily built, did all the talking.
“He said, ‘You’re going around alone a lot these days. It’s normal for a street dog like you who likes to be fucked. Tell me you want it. If you don’t, I’ll put this knife in your pussy’,” Hend says. “Then he ripped my leggings open at the crotch with the knife.”
The knife drew blood where it had made contact. The man wiped his fingers in the blood before wiping it on Hend’s mouth.
He then gave the knife to the second man, she says. The third was filming using a mobile phone.
The first man instructed Hend to get down on her knees.
“He told me to kneel down ‘in the place I belong and perform my role,’ saying, ‘Or is [name of Hend’s partner] better than me? Suck me off, and if you bite me I’ll stab you’.”
The second man was by this time holding the knife to her neck. With his other hand he inserted a finger in Hend’s anus.
“The man ejaculated on my face. Then he put his penis inside me briefly and asked me which I preferred better. He told me to get up, and said that they would send the video to my ‘queer of a boyfriend’.”
Hend says that the last thing the man said to her was a reference to the “January 28 queers who take it in all three orifices like [she] did.”
On July 1, Amnesty International issued a report in which it said that there has been a surge in arbitrary arrests and torture in the past year. It includes graphic testimonies from male detainees who allege that they were raped in police detention.
According to the report, at least 16,000 people have been detained since Morsi’s removal (sites such as Wikithawra suggest even higher estimates, of over 40,000). Women have not escaped the crackdown. This initially targeted Muslim Brotherhood women but as the net widened to include all forms of political dissent, other female political activists have been targeted.
Once women are detained, Seif al-Dawla says that the use of sexual violence against them “is massive and systematic. The grabbing of breasts and sexual verbal abuse is routine for women.”
She points out that the degree of violence is carefully calibrated, and is less brutal towards seasoned political activists who security force personnel are aware will not remain silent.
“In prison, the location, warden, officers in charge and so on are known. They would not risk this with outspoken detained women who have a say and a wide circle of supporters. They are abusing the unfortunate fact that people are okay with violations against Muslim Brotherhood members — and many still do not believe those stories when they get published,” Seif al-Dawla said.
“The detention of women is always associated with sexual harassment and sometimes assault as well. I think what is new is not the nature of the assault as much as the carelessness and sense of impunity that the officers feel,” Seif al-Dawla said.
Dalia Abdel Hamid, Gender and Women's Rights Programme Officer at EIPR, says that sexual violence is used because of the deep-rooted notion that it can break a victim.
Even if it does not break them, shame often silences them. But not always. On July 1, independent news website Yanair published an interview with an Al-Azhar student, Nada Ashraf who says she was sexually assaulted during clashes on the university campus in December 2013. The student also gave an interview, with her face blurred, to Al Jazeera Mubashir Misr.
Ashraf said she had been trying to attend an exam, but got caught up in the fierce violence between protesting students and the police. When she saw an officer grab a female student and touch her chest, Ashraf objected.
“So you think you’re a man?” the officer said to Ashraf. as he grabbed her instead. “I’ll show you I’m a man, prove to you that I’m tough.”
Ashraf says the masked officer took her into a police vehicle and raped her. She was then detained for 18 days. Her lawyer advised Ashraf’s mother to forget about the incident because of the scandal.
“I am not scared, not embarrassed and not broken. I didn’t do anything that I should feel scared or that I should hide anything. I won’t let anyone make me feel ashamed or wrong,” Ashraf told Yanair.
Ashrafs outspokenness is rare. It is impossible to know how many other women have endured a similar experience but kept it to themselves out of fear of being stigmatized or blamed.
A particularly brutal mob sexual assault took in Tahrir Square on June 8 during celebrations of President Sisi’s inauguration. After a video of the assault was posted online, Sisi ordered that all measures be taken to enforce the law against sexual harassment, an unacceptable form of conduct that he described as “alien to the best principles of Egyptian culture.”
Seif al-Dawla is skeptical of Sisi’s pronouncements, describing them as, “brazen, and an insult to our anger, intelligence and memory from the same person who defended virginity testing and who, in almost every speech, flirts with Egyptian women.”
Hend says she continues to be monitored. The men have not moved from outside her house. She believes they are from the Interior Ministry because they are not from the neighborhood, follow her, and their activity increases and decreases according to political events in the country.
On one occasion, the man who raped her telephoned to ask whether she misses him and “[his] dick and [his] taste.” She lives in fear that personal conversations she knows the police have recorded will be handed to the media, as happened recently to several prominent male activists.
Hend is undergoing therapy and on anti-depressants, but says she cannot discuss the attack with her therapist because of the risk of his betraying her confidence. She is plagued by flashbacks of the assault. In mid-May, Hend was sent a video of 30 seconds of the attack.
She says the timing was deliberate, and meant to intimidate her into silence ahead of the presidential election. These elections, essentially a festive pageant of voters celebrating the military and expressing adoration for Sisi — who went on to be elected with 96 percent of votes — proved difficult for Hend. Unable to talk about the attack, she felt like the voters were “literally dancing on my body.”
Hend is in no doubt as to why the police chose to use sexual violence to target her.
“The police do something different with every individual. They concentrate on the weaknesses. My weakness is that I come from a conservative family. They've got me where it hurts,” Hend says.
“I would rather go down as a traitor to the country than as a whore, because this way they would kill me socially.”