Journalist On Being Sexual 'Prey' In Egypt

While covering protests in Cairo last week, Egyptian-American journalist Mona Eltahawy was detained by local security forces. She says she was beaten and sexually assaulted. She recalls her experience with host Michel Martin. (Advisory: This segment contains language that may not be suitable for all audiences.)

Copyright © 2011 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, you might have heard about that alleged hazing incident at Florida A&M University where a student died. It didn't involve a football team or a fraternity, but a member of the band. We found a scholar who has researched hazing in all types of institutions and he'll tell us what he's learned in a few minutes.

But first, we turn to disturbing news out of Egypt. As we spoke about earlier, that nation is in the midst of its first elections since the overthrow of former President Hosni Mubarak. Despite the removal of that dictator, violence marred demonstrations and protests in and around Tahrir Square last week. At that time, Egyptian-American journalist, Mona Eltahawy, says she was beaten and sexually assaulted by Egyptian security forces and then detained by their interior ministry. This has resulted in a broken left arm and right hand, but Mona managed to Tweet about her experience immediately after. She's now back in the U.S. and she's with us now.

Mona, thank you so much for speaking with us. I'm so sorry about what happened to you.

MONA ELTAHAWY: Thanks for having me, Michel. I'm trying to heal.

MARTIN: And just as an alert to our listeners, because we're talking about a sexual assault, this conversation might not be appropriate for everyone. I just thought I should mention that. But, first of all, Mona, as I mentioned, broken left arm and right hand. You have Tweeted pictures of yourself, but you've got casts on both hands?

ELTAHAWY: Yeah.

MARTIN: Both arms?

ELTAHAWY: Yeah. I've got a cast halfway up my right arm and a cast all the way up my left arm.

MARTIN: And I apologize for having to ask you to relive the experience, but do you mind telling us what happened?

ELTAHAWY: What happened to me was that I went to Muhammad Mahmoud Street, which was the front line between confrontations between the protesters and security forces, and I was surrounded by four or five riot police. They beat me viciously with their sticks, which is how my left arm and my right hand were broken, and then they sexually assaulted me, which I just had hands all over my body; on my breasts, in between my legs. I lost count of the number of hands that tried to get into my trousers. And all of this while they were beating me and cursing me, pulling my hair and dragging me towards the interior ministry.

MARTIN: Was there any sense of what they thought they were doing or what their motivation was?

ELTAHAWY: Well, they kept asking me what the (beep) were you doing there? So I figured that I became a symbol of Tahrir for them because it really was two sides last week. It was everybody from Tahrir on one side and everybody from the security forces on the other.

So with me, once they caught me and took me beyond that front line into no man's land, I became their prey from Tahrir, and it was basically exacting revenge on the activists in Tahrir through me and my body. So they kept me at the interior ministry for about five to six hours on the pretext that they were trying to verify my identity because I didn't have papers on me, but it doesn't take six hours to verify someone's identity.

And then they handed me over to military police, where I was kept for another five to six hours, two of which I was blindfolded. So, again, you know, it doesn't take 12 hours and they didn't get me medical treatment during those 12 hours, even though I told them, you know, I feel like I have broken bones here.

MARTIN: I'm sorry. Just briefly, how did you finally get out?

ELTAHAWY: After those 12 hours at military, I refused to answer questions after about 45 minutes in a blindfold and I said, that's it. You know, I'm not - 45 minutes of questioning, but two hours in a blindfold. And I said, I'm not answering any more questions. Either charge me with something and get an attorney or get someone from the U.S. Embassy, because I'm a dual citizen.

So they basically gave up and then they came back and said, well, we don't know why you're here and we don't know why they sent you from the interior ministry. And, again, I find that very difficult to believe. I mean, they must be incredibly inept if it's that bad and they don't know why I'm there. And I refuse to believe that they're that inept.

So I think what was happening during those whole 12 hours was, somewhere along the line, they realized that I'm a journalist who has a long history of writing against the regime and exposing their human rights violations and they were trying to balance out whether I was more damage to them in custody or outside of custody, and so they released me.

MARTIN: At that point, you were able to make your way to a hospital to get medical treatment and eventually get out of the country?

ELTAHAWY: Well, what happened is that I went back to my hotel. A friend came and took me so I could get my arms cast, but I didn't want to leave Egypt immediately because the next day was a huge turnout at Tahrir Square. So I stayed in Egypt for two more days because I went to Egypt as an Egyptian who fully supports this revolution and wanted to physically be there during this very difficult time because many of us feel that the military that currently rules Egypt is hijacking our revolution. So it was really important to me to be there on the ground.

So I went to Tahrir the next day after my arms were cast and the love I saw from people, it made me realize why I stayed. People were coming up to me and kissing me on the forehead, giving me a hug and saying, I'm so sorry for what happened to you, but this is exactly why we're going to continue to fight for our revolution.

MARTIN: You said that you feel that your treatment was actually less severe than would have been meted out had you not been an American citizen.

ELTAHAWY: Exactly.

MARTIN: What's your evidence of that? Did you see other people being treated worse? Do you have a sense of many, many other people having been detained?

ELTAHAWY: The Egyptian security forces have a very long and brutal history with imposing all kinds of horrors on the ordinary average Egyptian. I know for a fact, if I was a working class woman from a poor neighborhood in Egypt, I could have disappeared. I could have been gang raped. No one would have known anything about me.

But the fact that I made very clear to them that I was a journalist that's has a voice in the international media, that I was a dual citizen and I demanded someone from the embassy to come and witness any interrogation if they were going to charge me with anything. That, I know, made them extra cautious.

MARTIN: You've been a guest on our program before and in a May conversation that we had with you with a group of other women journalists, including yourself, we talked about the coverage of the sexual assault and the beating of the CBS News correspondent, Lara Logan, and you mentioned then that, while the incident was horrible, you felt that the reason it received so much attention is that this happened to a white woman from the United States, not a woman from Egypt, not a Muslim.

Having gone through this now yourself and, obviously, having drawn a lot of attention to your own situation and so forth, others, what do you think this says? I'm interested in how you evaluate your experience in light of what happened to Lara. Because one of the things you said at the time is this has been happening all along to many Egyptian women and it has not gotten a lot of attention. So I'm interested in two things. First of all, what do you say now? And secondly, why is there all this kind of behavior being directed toward women? What's going on there?

ELTAHAWY: Right. Now, I do remember our conversation in May and I think one of the things that upset me the most was that Lara - and horrendous as her experience was - was presented as the first person to speak out against sexual violence in Egypt. And my point all along was that there have been many courageous women who have spoken out against sexual violence, especially that imposed by the state.

MARTIN: Can I just clarify one thing? You are absolutely sure - and I'm not questioning you - but you're absolutely sure that the people who attacked you were connected to securities forces and not just random thugs?

ELTAHAWY: Oh, absolutely. They were in uniform. They were in riot police uniform. Yes.

MARTIN: OK. And finally, I did want to ask about, you know, what you think this says about the state of and the direction of Egypt's moves post-Mubarak because, you know, we had an earlier conversation in this program with Abderrahim Foukara from Al Jazeera and he gave us his perspective. So now I'd like to ask yours.

You know, Mubarak was overthrown, it was a great moment for many people. Obviously, there are people who supported him, but there was this great sense of triumph, a great sense that the people had spoken and a new era had dawned.

What do you think this incident involving you and others who have received similar treatment says about Egypt's direction post-Mubarak?

ELTAHAWY: I think what happened to me and what happened to, you know, those 3,000 people who were injured in Egypt last week and up to 40 dead, is a clear indication that the same kind of state brutality that inspired the revolution that began on January the 25th very much exists. So we basically replaced one Hosni Mubarak with 18 Hosni Mubaraks and they are the supreme council of the armed forces.

The fact that the Mubarak regime used to use sexual violence against female protesters and activists - that sexual violence continued with the military when they imposed so-called virginity tests on women in March. They're basically sexual assaults, but they were carried out by the military.

And now, full circle to my experience and the experience of many other women at the hands of the security forces tells me that we are still fighting the same enemy, and that is a very brutal state, a very brutal regime that does not hesitate to break arms and bones and to use sexual violence to intimidate people.

So in other words, our revolution in Egypt continues, and one of the main demands of the revolution all along and especially now, is an end to military rule.

MARTIN: Mona Eltahawy is an Egyptian-American journalist who has covered the Egyptian revolution extensively. She joined us today from NPR's New York bureau. Mona, thank you so much for speaking with us. Do continue to stay in touch with us, if you would, and do take care of those injuries.

ELTAHAWY: Thanks for having me, Michel.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.