Feminist Revolution in the Arab Spring

Image credit: Stephanie Monohan

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The world shows us, over and over again, that we are still being attacked. The story differs depending on who and where you are —rape on campus, domestic abuse, femicide, honor killing. Language changes, new waves of feminism are commodified, battle lines shift, laws improve and regress, but the violence and the threat of it are still there.

At least sometimes when we fight back we don’t have to do it alone.

This story is about a feminist intervention group that formed in late 2012, nearly two years into the Egyptian revolution, when mass sexual assaults of female protesters were spreading through Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

Reports of mob attacks against female protesters first appeared online. Witnesses and survivors described different levels of violence but it always seemed to start the same way: a group of men would encircle a woman, or multiple women, and from there the crowd would grow to dozens, sometimes hundreds of people. Men groped, stripped, beat, and raped women. Within the chaos of the mob around them, people fought with one another. They pickpocketed. They tried to film what was happening on their phones. Some tried to help the victims, others joined in the assault.

The revolution that had erupted so unexpectedly in 2011—a revolution with all of the transcendence and promise of unstoppable, fear-breaking collective action against decades of police brutality, dictatorship, and corruption—was now in a state of political and spiritual crisis. After Hosni Mubarak stepped down in February 2011, the military led a transitional period marked by continued state violence against prodemocracy protesters. In the spring of 2012, the Muslim Brotherhood, the most organized opposition group in the country (despite being legally banned for nearly half a century), won the first open presidential elections. Once in power, the Brotherhood abandoned the revolution’s demands, pursuing its own economic and political agenda, seeing little need to make or keep allies. The movement that saw Tahrir Square as its center was now reactive, no longer moving public imagination as much as trying to hold ground, to not let go.

When the attacks against women spread, the dominant feeling among many activists was that they were premeditated. Security forces have a history of paying thugs to harass female protesters, although it had never happened on this scale. Some thought perhaps the Brotherhood was attempting to undermine street-based opposition to their government by paying men to attack women protesters. Or perhaps it was sabotage by formerly powerful members of the security apparatus who were ousted along with Mubarak.

Whatever the cause, women in Tahrir were in increasing danger of being attacked, and no one was doing anything about it until a few groups of people—many of us women who were ourselves attacked or had seen other women attacked—began to organize. The group at the center of this book was one of the earliest to form and was organized by activists who could broadly be described as leftist, many of whom already knew and had worked with one another. We started out without a name, going to the protests wearing pink ribbons around our arms so that we could spot one another in the crowds. Everything else grew from there.

We spent a long time debating what to name the group. It wasn’t clear which Arabic word to use to describe what we were fighting against—taharrosh, the most commonly used word for harassment in Egyptian dialect, didn’t capture the violence of the attacks. Back then, taharrosh could mean catcalling or teasing; it was understood to be potentially harmless. We decided on the long but more accurate Operation Anti–Sexual Harassment and Assault, Opantish for short. With the name came Facebook and Twitter pages, and T-shirts that became our uniform with the motto “A Midan Safe for All” printed in Arabic on the back. (Midan means both traffic circle and public square in Arabic. Throughout the revolution it was commonly used to refer to Tahrir, a major traffic circle in downtown Cairo, which was transformed into a public square when it was occupied by protesters. I have chosen to use it in transliterated form throughout this book when referring to Tahrir.)

We created a sophisticated operational structure that, at its peak, deployed hundreds of volunteers working in specialized teams on the ground. Men and women learned how to effectively fight their way into the mobs, packed first aid material and spare clothes to carry on their backs for victims, debated whether to carry weapons. Getaway drivers mapped the best routes for avoiding military barricades when they were driving women away. In the press, we talked about the state’s long history of complicity in sexual violence against women, called out leftist activists and political groups for ignoring or even denying the ongoing attacks (this isn’t the time for women’s issues, they said), and organized ourselves around an unapologetic discourse: women had a right to be in the square any time we pleased, we were not to be separated or cordoned off from political action on the street, we had a right to both speak about and fight this violence.

From physically intervening on the ground to overseeing the complicated logistics of the operation, women led. Opantish positioned itself as a necessary part of the revolution even as it struggled against sexism within revolutionary circles.

Everything that follows is based on interviews and conversations with other organizers of the group, email correspondence and news reports from the time, and my own notes and memories. Some names and some details have been changed for privacy. This is just one telling of a very real history; within and around it, there are countless others.

— an excerpt from Radius: A Story of Feminist Revolution by Yasmin El-Rifae.

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