Women participated in the anti-government protests that were organized on the 25 January 2011 and their numbers grew as the initial protests turned into a full-fledged uprising against the rule of then President Hosni Mubarak. After the stepping down of Mubarak, many women hoped that their contribution to the revolution would be recognized and that they would be included in the institutions responsible for guiding the political transition towards democracy. Instead, women faced a number of challenges to get their voices heard. Not only were they under-represented in the first parliamentary elections in November-December 2011 and in the constitution drafting committee established in 2012, but they also faced a backlash against existing women’s rights as conservative political forces called for the repeal of a law introduced in 2000 giving women the right to unilateral divorce (khula’).

Samira Ibrahim

The most serious threat to Egyptian women’s participation in the political transition was the proliferation of violence targeted against women in protest spaces. On 8 March, a group of women and men gathered in Tahrir Square to celebrate International Women’s Day and were attacked, including being sexually assaulted. The following day, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) cleared Tahrir Square of protesters, detaining 18 women, 17 of whom were then beaten, tortured, strip searched in front of male soldiers and forced to undergo so-called virgintiy test. At the time, an army general, defended the practice as necessary to protect the army from accusations of rape, since ‘The girls who were detained were not like your daughter or mine … These were girls who had camped out in tents with male protesters in Tahrir Square’, indicating that ‘proper’ Egyptian women do not participate in protest activities. In December 2011, during large demonstrations outside the cabinet building, downtown, soldiers were captured on video dragging a woman protester across the street, beating her and pulling away her abaya to reveal her bra (which happened to be blue).

<span class="alert-danger glyphicon glyphicon-exclamation-sign"></span> Episode of Hina al-Asima (Here is the Capital), dedicated to discussing mass sexual assault of women protesters

The worst types of violence against women protesters emerged after June 2012, when there was an alarming escalation in a particular pattern of sexual attacks. These attacks, perpetrated by unknown men, all involved a similar method: large gangs of men would surround an individual woman, brutally beat her and sexually assault her, sometimes using sharp objects. One report presented over 250 cases of sexual assault and rape that took place between November 2012 and January 2013. During the massive political mobilisation leading up to and after the 30 June 2013 protests against then President Morsi, at least 91 women were victims of sex attacks. Many women understood these attacks as aiming to break women’s will and scare them away from public spaces and their involvement in the political transition, enabled by dominant societal views of women.

No to Sexual Harassment

In response, women and men organized in unprecedented cross-gender alliances to directly resist this violence. Groups such as OpAntiSH and Tahrir Bodyguards patrolled protests, organized rescue teams and provided medical and psychological support to victims. Meanwhile, Shoft Taharrosh,  Basma Imprint Movement and HarassMap worked to prevent sexual harassment and assault in other public spaces as well as providing awareness and education on the issue. Like other youth initiatives after 2011, anti-sexual harassment groups included women and men, however, OpAntiSH distinguished itself because women were also part of the rescue teams, thereby challenging the paradigm of ‘masculinist protection’. Significantly, women victims increasingly began to speak out publicly, such as Yasmine El Baramawy, Hania Moheeb and Aida Kashef, who were interviewed on prime time Egyptian TV, directly resisting their victimization and stigmatization.

Circle of Hell

Women have used popular culture to highlight the problem of sexual harassment and violence against women, such as the graffiti “Circle of Hell”, by Mira Shihadeh, and the documentary “The People’s Girls”. They have subverted dominant notions of women as weak and vulnerable, such as in the graffiti image entitled “No to Sexual Harassment” (also by Shihadeh) and the cartoon “My Soul will Never be Defeated”, by Doaa Eladl. Moreover, graffiti images around Cairo’s streets celebrated the bravery of Samira Ibrahim, one of the victims of the so-called ‘virginity tests’ who raised a court case against the doctor who was responsible for carrying out the ‘test’ together with the anonymous woman of the ‘blue bra’ incident, who was respectfully named ‘sitt al-banat’ or ‘the best of girls’.

One of the most important achievements of the 25 January Revolution is undoubtedly women’s success in pressuring the state to address the problem of sexual harassment against women. In 2014, the government amended the Penal Code to stiffen punishment for sexual harassment, paving the way for the prosecution of some (although, not all) cases of gang rapes in Tahrir Square, as well as announcing a national strategy to combat violence against women. In this respect, Egyptian rap artist, Zap Tharwat, recorded the song 'Whose Fault is It'. Significantly, Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi was the first Egyptian president to speak publicly about sexual violence against women. However, as part of the growing repression after 2013, his government has harassed and prosecuted several of the women activists, such as Azza Soliman, Mozn Hassan and Aida Seif El-Dawla, who played an important leadership role in documenting violence against women and supporting women survivors.

Further readings

Books:

Abouelnaga, Sherine (2016) Women in Revolutionary Egypt: Gender and the New Geographics of Identity, Cairo: AUC Press.

Al-Ali, Nadje S. (2012) Gendering the Arab Spring, Middle East Journal of Culture and Communication, 5(1): 26-31.

Allam, Nermine (2018) Women and the Egyptian Revolution: Engagement and Activism during the 2011 Uprisings, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

El Said, Maha, Lena Meari and Nicola Pratt, eds. (2015) Rethinking Gender in Revolutions and Resistance: Lessons from the Arab World, London: Zed Books.

Hafez, Sherine (2019) Women of the Midan: The Untold Stories of Egypt’s Revolutionaries, Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Tadros, Mariz (2016) Resistance, Revolt and Gender Justice in Egypt, Syracuse: Syracuse University Press.

Short articles:

Aswat Masriya (2016) Women Artists Defy Stereotypes, Mainstream Music in Egypt, Egypt Independent, 11 May 2016: https://ww.egyptindependent.com/women-artists-defy-stereotypes-mainstream-music-egypt/

Langohr, Vickie (2013) "This is Our Square": Fighting Sexual Assault at Cairo Protests, Middle East Report, 268 (autumn), https://merip.org/2013/09/this-is-our-square/ 

Suzeeinthecity (2013) Women in Grafitti: A Tribute to the Women of Egypt, 7 January: https://suzeeinthecity.wordpress.com/2013/01/07/women-in-graffiti-a-tribute-to-the-women-of-egypt/

Pratt, Nicola (2013) Egyptian Women between Revolution, Counter-revolution, Orientalism and “Authenticity”, Jadaliyya.com, 6 May: http://www.jadaliyya.com/Details/28574

Pratt, Nicola (2015) Gendered Paradoxes of Egypt’s Transition, OpenDemocracy, 2 February: https://www.opendemocracy.net/5050/nicola-pratt/gendered-paradoxes-of-egypt’s-transition

Pratt, Nicola and Sara Salem (2017) Revisiting the “Blue Bra” Incident: Towards a New Agenda for Researching Politics and Popular Culture in Egypt, Jadaliyya.com, 25 January: http://www.jadaliyya.com/Details/33962/Revisiting-the-“Blue-Bra”-Incident-Towards-a-New-Agenda-for-Researching-Politics-and-Popular-Culture-in-Egypt 

Items from the archive

Graffiti
Cartoons
Songs
Videos/films

Questions

  1. What were some of the obstacles facing women’s participation in the revolution?  Were these the same for all women? How were these obstacles represented in popular culture?
  2. How did women use popular culture to challenge gender hierarchies?
  3. How do certain notions of femininity threaten or legitimize political authority?