Sara’s* 11-year-old daughter still won’t wear the clothes or bag she had on that night, on June 8, when her and her mother were grabbed and assaulted by mobs of young men in Tahrir Square.
They had gone down to celebrate the inauguration of Egypt’s new President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
In an exclusive interview with Mada Masr, 29-year-old Sara, a widowed mother of three, says she regrets going to Tahrir after what happened, and she has received little help from the government in the aftermath.
After identifying six of the perpetrators, especially the boys who first grabbed her and her daughter, and taking them to court, where some of them received verdicts on Wednesday, she says: “No matter what happens in this trial, our rights won’t be attained. Nothing can compensate us for what we’ve been through.”
Sisi has launched a national campaign to combat sexual harassment after at least nine incidents of mob sexual assault took place in Tahrir Square between June 3 and 8, during celebrations marking his victory in the presidential elections and his swearing-in ceremony.
The issue, although it has plagued Egyptian society for years, came to the forefront after Sisi acknowledged it. He also instructed the Ministry of Interior, in charge of Egypt’s police force, to take all necessary measures to combat sexual harassment, which a presidential statement issued on Tuesday said is, “an unacceptable form of conduct, alien to the best principles of Egyptian culture.”
Still, Sara would like a bit more attention from the man she says she has been “dishonored” and “humiliated” for — President Sisi.
After spending just over three hours in celebration at the Square, where her and her three children sang along to nationalistic songs, painted their faces with the Egyptian flag and took photographs to remember the day, the night took a horrific turn at around 9.30 pm, Sara said.
“We were standing by a crowded podium set up in front of the Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant, and suddenly we found young boys attacking us all at once. My girls were crying and one of the boys grabbed her from behind and tried to take her away,” she recounted.
“After my sister and I managed to pull him away from her, he then pulled me. He pushed me into the crowds. They formed a circle around me. And then it was a case of people grabbing my breasts, grabbing my arms, they took my niqab off completely. Suddenly, I found that all my clothes were ripped off, and I was naked. Every time I called for someone to save me, worse throngs of men encircled me. There were more than 30 men surrounding me. They were all youths. One of them pushed me to the ground in a sleeping position and lay on me. I kept kicking him with my legs until I could get up.”
A police officer eventually managed to penetrate the crowds and fired shots into the air, until he could get Sara out.
She says she had bruise marks all over her body, her ankle was injured from where they dragged her on the ground, and her neck ached for a week after they tried to strangle her with her niqab.
“I couldn’t hear what the young men were saying to me when they were attacking me, because of all the surrounding noise, but all I kept saying was: Have mercy on me. Why are you doing this? My daughter was crying and screaming: Why are you doing this to my mother?” she said.
She believes the attack was organized and intentional given that it happened to at least six women at around the same time of night in nearby locations in the Square.
During the attack, Sara’s bag was stolen, which contained her rent money and national identification card, and she says she’s received little help to get her ID card renewed. “I just want someone to pay us a decent amount of attention, like the person I went to the Square for,” Sara said. “I want him to bring us our rights.”
She says the defense lawyers, of the 12 men that have been put on trial for the attack, have been slandering the women and calling them “dishonorable.”
“If that’s true, what would make me work for LE500 a month at a cleaning services company? And, I could have remarried. My husband passed away five years ago. I wouldn’t go down to the Square and do this to myself,” she says.
Sara put on the niqab soon after her husband died, because she wanted to focus on raising the children without any harassment and flirtatious attention from other men. Having her full face revealed, and being stripped naked, in front of crowds of strange men, “was really difficult,” she said.
She places the blame on those who should have been responsible for making the Square more secure. “Before they call on the people to go down to the Square, every space needs to be secured. And they should know the good from the bad,” Sara says.
And she’s not alone in that request. Hala, a 19-year-old student, who was also assaulted near the podium, asks why the Ministry of Interior, responsible for Egypt’s police force and security, didn’t better secure every bit of the square.
“There should have been police officers inside the Square, not just on the outskirts. And, there was no one at the security checkpoints to enter the Square. It was just for show,” she said.
In an interview at her home, in a humble and small family apartment in Cairo, Hala recalled her experience on a night that damage was done to her left eye, from which she can no longer see.
Her and her friends went to get some water after spending a hot and crowded night with their parents in the Square celebrating Sisi. It was about 10.15 pm, she said, and the vicinity was full of “shabab” (youths).
“A man volunteered to get us out of the crowds, and so we walked behind him. But then he led us into circles of shabab. I was in front, so I got it worst. They started harassing me, stripping me of my clothes, they tried to grab my areas of chastity and beat me until I was unconscious on the floor,” she said. “All I remember next is that I was in an ambulance.”
She added that some people have since said this happened to her because of what she was wearing. But says: “I wore black trousers, a white t-shirt and a red scarf: the colors of the Egyptian flag. And if it could happen to a woman wearing a niqab, what does this have to do with our clothing?”
Hala says as the men were beating her, they kept saying: “We’ll show you, so you don’t go down for Sisi again.”
It’s an experience that’s left her traumatized. She no longer goes to crowded places, she screams if someone tries to wake her up when she’s sleeping, and she does not walk alone at night or in streets that are not well-lit, because her sight has been partially damaged.
And she can no longer listen to Boshret Kheir, a patriotic song written for President Sisi. “It was playing on repeat when the attack happened,” Hala said.
“I’d like Sisi to pay me more attention. I went down to the Square for him,” she says. “I need surgery on my eye. They cannot fix it in Egypt, but maybe there is treatment abroad that he could help pay for.”
She said: “Just as he went to visit that woman in hospital, there are many others that went down to the Square for him and got injured because of it.”
The government response to her ordeal has been minimal, she says. A female police officer from the Interior Ministry’s violence against women unit did come to visit her with a box of chocolates at home. “That’s nice,” she says. “But what’s a box of chocolates going to do for my eye?”
* The names of women in this article have been changed, at their request, to respect their privacy.