We Need To Hear Women’s Voices: Sexual Violence in a Revolution

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At least 91 women have been sexually assaulted since last week as part of Egypt’s ongoing protests. It is not the first time that women were sexually assaulted in Egypt, or even at protests in any nation – women were targeted for sexual assault during Occupy and even in Turkey last month. But when sexual assault – a truly cruel crime against humanity which has everything to do with power, prejudice, and privilege – happens in an activists space, it begs the question: where are women safe? Are they ever safe?

Tahrir Square in May 2011. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.
Tahrir Square in May 2011. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

There are many steps to preventing assault, none of which are being utilized to minimize attacks on women in Egypt’s Tahrir Square. The government has not taken action – in fact, in Egypt, police often choose not to be present in Tahrir Square during large demonstrations. The mobs which descended upon the protests to rape and assault these women knew police would not be found there. But women have voices, and need to be present in a real democracy. Where should women go?

Women played a crucial role in Egypt’s revolution in 2011, but changing patriarchal norms is not only about getting women involved government or active in society – it depends how the greater society receives them and how that culture itself shifts to accept and welcome them. The revolution was a strong start, but with 376 women running for parliament last session, only eight of them won. Clearly, there’s a need for further progress to make women’s voices and experiences important to Egyptian leaders and citizens alike. As Nina Burleigh wrote for CNN:

Egypt has always been a place where life for women is nasty and brutish, if not short. Last year, a UNICEF survey showed 91% of Egyptian women between the ages of 15-49 said they had to undergo female genital mutilation. The United Nations Entity for Gender Equality in May reported that 99.3% of Egyptian women interviewed said they had been subjected to some form of sexual violence. Rape victims almost never go to the hospital and certainly not the police. There are no medical protocols for rape, and police treat female victims as prostitutes.

Whether or not that violence is political is worthy of discussion. I believe it is. At the moment, no one even debates it. It is the elephant in the room.

As the Egyptian revolution enters another chapter, and more women get stripped and sexually assaulted in the streets while being systematically excluded from the halls of power in Cairo, it is high time for American progressives and other Arab Spring commentators to stop separating anti-female violence from the politics of the Muslim Brotherhood’s revolutionaries.

After Egypt’s revolution, the world mistakenly assumed gender equality would be considered a key tenet of Egypt’s new democracy. But gender equality is part of the larger issue of human rights, and if the government of Egypt does not take issue with this crime against women it’s hard to decipher where they stand on those rights. A purposeful police absence gave the fundamentalists more chances to target women, and women cannot be expected to achieve equality without institutional support. The Egyptian government is not taking responsibility for keeping these women safe, and often the international community – which, in this case, has galvanized to create safe spaces for the women in Tahrir Square – cannot be bothered to intervene.

There is no place for women in this world: from Afghanistan to Africa and from America to Australia, all women live in fear of violent crime. Action needs to take place to keep women safe, and their progress cannot be left up to them alone. If women do not have the ability to safely participate in a democracy, or are silenced as a democracy begins to take shape, that sets a dangerous precedent in any nation’s search for equality and pathway to honoring human rights. Women matter, and women’s voices matter – in every protest and every corner of the world.

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