Egyptian Women Speak Out Against Sexual Violence At Protests

In Egypt, sexual violence against women is on the rise. It has become a chronic problem in a state where security is breaking down and mass protests are not policed. And as the number of assaults increase, many women say they will no longer be silent.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

A very different story now, from Egypt. There, sexual violence against women is on the rise. And a warning: Some of what you'll hear in the next few minutes is disturbing, starting with this: Women who show up at protests are in danger of being mobbed by men and gang raped. During the most recent demonstration, one victim was sexually assaulted with a knife, another strangled with her scarf, and another violated in front of her children. As the number of assaults increases, many Egyptian women say they'll no longer be silent.

NPR's Leila Fadel sent this report.

AIDA AL KASHEF: (Foreign language spoken)

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: This is the voice of Aida al Kashef, a documentary filmmaker and activist. She filmed the sexual assault of a women being mobbed, stripped and manhandled by dozens of men.

Aida narrates. Men's hands are in her pants and under her shirt. But no one hears her screaming, she says. Girls like this are raped in front of everyone.

KASHEF: (Foreign language spoken)

FADEL: But no one wants to see, she says. We will break the silence.

Sexual violence has become a chronic problem in Egypt, a state where security is breaking down and mass protests are un-policed.

Heba Morayef, Egypt director for Human Rights Watch, says organized, opportunistic men are raping women and they're getting away with it.

HEBA MORAYEF: And there's a general climate of impunity when it comes to sexual violence so we keep seeing it happening again and again.

FADEL: But the worst part is that most often a culture of silence prevails and the victim is blamed rather than the rapists.

ABU ISLAM: (Foreign language spoken)

FADEL: Here, a radical Salafi sheikh who goes by Abu Islam, mocks women who've been assaulted at protests. He was speaking on a satellite Arabic television channel that reaches millions of people. He says these women who get raped are goons, devils with no shame, and no men to hold them back from shameless acts.

But it's not only the radicals who say these things. In the upper house of Egypt's parliament, several Islamist legislators said basically the same thing. If they don't want to get raped, women shouldn't go to protests.

Aida Kashef and dozens of other activists have launched what they call Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment. The aim is to expose the crimes and stop them. Members of the group roam Cairo's Tahrir Square rushing to the aid of women being assaulted. The film Aida made with a colleague is an attempt to bring awareness to the problem.

KASHEF: And no, it is increasing day by day, not just what's happening in Tahrir, but all over Egypt. It's becoming more violent. And it's not about where you are or what time it is, who you are with, what you're wearing. It happens to every woman. I don't think...

FADEL: Some of the assaults the group has documented involved women in their 60s, some who covered every inch of their bodies, including their faces. On January 25 alone, the second anniversary of Egypt's uprising, at least 19 cases of assault against women were documented at protests in Cairo.

KASHEF: Men are responsible for what they're doing. I'm not giving them excuses, but I mean the amount of anger and rage that is built in everyone of us because of all the - like the circumstances in Egypt and, you know, I think that it is, it feels most of the time that it's venting out, like that men are venting out on women. Not...

FADEL: Aida spoke to us on Valentine's Day at a small gathering of women, and some men, participating in a global event to stop violence against women known as One Billion Women Rising. Aida passed out fliers, another woman sang, and people danced.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing in foreign language)

FADEL: But even among attendees on this day, some blamed the victims for being assaulted.

SAMIRA ABDEL SAMEE: (Foreign language spoken)

FADEL: Rape is wrong, says 58-year-old Samira Abdel Samee. But the woman should be honorable and respectable and good, she says. A man will never touch an honorable woman.

Nearby, Toallah Osama shook her head. The 21-year-old is tired of being blamed for a man's crime.

TOALLAH OSAMA: (Foreign language spoken)

FADEL: I'm not the problem, she says. Men are the problem. These days I don't leave my house unless it's absolutely necessary, she says. It's humiliating and horrifying for us.

Leila Fadel, NPR News, Cairo.

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