Egypt: Twitter and bodyguards to counter sexual harassment

Against pervasive phenomenon, volunteers and ngos organize

17 December, 15:58

Women in Tahrir Square, Cairo Women in Tahrir Square, Cairo

(By Shelly Kittleson) (ANSAmed) - CAIRO, 17 DIC - Makeshift wooden watchtowers and reflective vests, Twitter accounts and hotlines are being used by young Egyptians to make sure that, when the tweet comes in or the girl is surrounded, someone is there to respond to sexual assault and harassment in crowded gatherings and protests. Following the death of a 16-year-old in recent months for having spat at her assaulter in Asyut and reports of armed men paid to infiltrate protests and ''shame'' women by sexually assaulting them, some Egyptians decided to take action.

Egypt has long been notorious for casual sexual harassment of women, with aggressors invariably enjoying immunity. The first time a man was convicted of sexual harassment in Egypt was in 2008, in a case which provided the inspiration for Mohamed Diaz's award-winning film ''678''. In 2010, some 23 NGOs worked together to draw up a new draft law against sexual harassment - a law that, like many others, was stalled by the outbreak of the revolution.

However, since the 2011 uprising that brought down Hosni Mubarak's regime and initiated a period under the nation's military council first and then under the country's first Muslim Brotherhood president, reports of foreign journalists subjected to brutal sexual assault in the iconic Tahrir Square, young female protestors forced to undergo ''virginity tests'' and other dragged half-naked through the streets brought the rage against the phenomenon to a crescendo. That and a new civil consciousness born of the experience of self-organising during the uprising resulted in groups being formed to prevent and to react to this type of situation.

On December 20, 2011, the video footage of a girl wearing a blue bra being beaten, savagely stripped and dragged by security forces rapidly made the rounds on the internet. Another slogan was added to those chanted at protest movements from that day on: Banat Misr Khatt Ahmar, ''Egypt's Girls are a Red Line''.

And one of the first groups to specifically target sexual harassment in public squares has taken this very name, with ''Banat Misr'' stamped across the tent it keeps at the edge of Tahrir Square staffed by volunteers wearing white t-shirts emblazoned with the name in red on them.

One of Banat Misr's approximately 30 volunteers, Motaz Al-Asmar, told ANSAmed that the group had studied numerous surveys and spoken to victims of attacks in order to try to understand the dynamics behind such incidents. He noted that very few girls report the incident to the police, as ''it's a scandal to go and say that you were harassed'', but that the group actively encouraged those who suffer such attacks to do so, ''as otherwise nothing will change''.

Sexual harassment and assault are known to peak during holidays in Egypt (with the most well-known example being the 2006 Eid El-Fitr, when several girls were publicly stripped and brutally assaulted in downtown Cairo), and Banat Misr began monitoring harassment during the last Eid Al-Adha holiday in late October. It then set up its operations in Tahrir Square at the end of November.

Al-Asmar told ANSAmed that the group is attempting to address the issue at a societal level as well, and that to this end they are working on making a number of television spots and documentaries. Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment is another group working in the same field, focusing on education and raising awareness.

Tahrir Bodyguards is the most recent addition, launched on November 27, 2012. Though those involved tend to keep a low public profile for security reasons, their Twitter account is highly active, with stats and quotes to raise awareness about the issues involved in violence against women and the harassment of them in Egypt and an email address to which one can address any queries. The ''bodyguards'' dress in neon vests and make their way through Tahrir and elsewhere in groups during protests, reacting immediately to situations in which women are targeted as well as to tweets sent by those witness to sexual assault. Calls for volunteers go out via their Twitter account - and, when that gets shut down (which it has been a few times already), Facebook - every time a new protest is planned. Unlike Banat Misr, they do not try to convince the girls to report the incidents to police but instead focus simply on getting them to safety, where other groups trained to deal with this type of situation take over, according to one of their members contacted by ANSA.

There have been numerous reports that groups of men have been paid to harass and assault women in this period to provoke widespread fear and get women to do exactly what religious fundamentalists and those wanting to prevent any questioning of their power would have them do: stay home. Mubarak's regime also allegedly paid poor, young men from Cairo's outskirts to do exactly the same. The ''bodyguards'' and those drawing ''a red line'' are trying to prevent a style of repression from repeating itself under another name and mantra, amid a constitutional referendum which may well more firmly establish ''women's proper role in society''. (ANSAmed).

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