The Nation, JANUARY 22, 2018
I helped protect women from assault during the protests—those experiences can benefit feminists all over the world.
By Yasmin El-Rifae
I wonder how many women were slow to engage with the Weinstein story and the #MeToo campaign that followed. I was. I’ve been writing about sexual violence for years, but I ignored the Weinstein story for several days. I didn’t even bookmark it to read later. I didn’t want to be sucked into performing shock at the exposure of another powerful man as a sexual criminal, another story that’s been buried for years, a half-open secret finally in print.
When my Facebook feed flooded with #MeToo in English and in Arabic, I noticed that the posts by my Egyptian friends were longer, angrier, but also more questioning than the rest. Friends in Europe and America posted lots of statements: “Sadly, unsurprisingly, #metoo.” Right away, Egyptians wanted to talk about what this hashtag could do; who its audience was; the value of seeking male allies in the fight; the complicated dynamics of a movement pressuring women to “tell” when they might not want to, might not be able to. I appreciate that this snapshot analysis of my algorithmically curated Facebook feed is not scientific ground for a cross-national analysis of discourse. Perhaps my Egyptian friends are just more expressive on Facebook; perhaps I simply know more feminists from Cairo than anywhere else.
But I think there’s something important about the place from which we speak. In Egypt we do not have the pretense of a society that is equal or one in which women’s rights are protected. While the Trump presidency may have stripped America of this veneer, it’s still widely understood that things are “better” in America for women than they are in Egypt. In fact, news outlets recently reported on a study that found Cairo to be the “most dangerous” megacity for women. The study was based on the subjective input of unnamed “experts” from the 19 megacities on the list. Like so many sensationalist headlines about women in Arab societies, it was thrown into the world as evidence of some long-suspected sickness.
Stories about sexual violence in Arab countries almost always quarantine these problems as specific to Islam or Arab culture. This is how they are often reported on, and how analysts who make a living speaking on the topic often pitch it. Patriarchy is global, until it comes to the Arab world. Men everywhere hurt women because of interconnected systems of power that privilege them—but when we talk about Arabs or Muslims, we cut all of that away and make it simply about religion.
The first and most obvious problem with this is that it is patronizing, essentialist, and simplistic. It’s not helpful to women—suggesting that we must shed our entire culture and religion in order to save ourselves—and this attitude is easily weaponized against whole societies, and Arab men in particular. Arguments about the fundamental misogyny of Islam were used to justify the 2001 US-led war on Afghanistan, and, more recently, to demonize migrants following mob sexual assaults in Germany.
The second problem, the one that is talked about less, is that by separating out the struggles and experiences of Arab women we exclude them from the wider conversation and, in doing so, make their experiences less available and less useful to the rest of the world—most importantly, to women elsewhere who are thinking about similar problems.
Five years ago I stood on a street corner in Tahrir and watched, feeling useless, as dozens of men sexually attacked a woman—or perhaps multiple women. It was dark and it was difficult to make out what was going on right in front of me. The crowd was rotating around a central point that I could not see. Reports of mob attacks of this kind against female protesters had spread in recent weeks. In these mobs of dozens, sometimes hundreds of people, women were encircled, stripped, beaten, groped, and raped.
I was there with a group called Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment and Assault (OpAntiSH), which for the past few weeks had been intervening in mob attacks to rescue women. I was carrying a backpack containing an abaya (a full-length robe), a pair of medium-sized underwear, flip-flops, painkillers, gauze, and disinfectant—all the stuff we’d learned women might need after surviving these kinds of assaults. Although I could no longer see them, I knew that a team of OpAntiSH volunteers was physically fighting its way through the mob to reach the woman being attacked. I was part of a “safety unit” that was supposed to remain nearby but not get caught in the crowd so that we could get to the survivor afterwards and coordinate getting her home, or to one of the safe houses OpAntiSH had arranged, or, if necessary, to the hospital.
That night, our team’s plan had fallen apart. There were too few of us, too many of them; we weren’t prepared for a level of violence that involved knives and tasers; we hadn’t yet comprehended the overwhelming power of a crowd that size. I don’t know—or I can’t recall—what happened to the woman or women who were in the middle of that attack.
These attacks continued for months, plaguing political rallies in Tahrir, the square that symbolized a revolution. Now women were being attacked simply for being there, for being women. For OpAntiSH, things would get worse before they got better. The group had formed out of a network of friends, allies, and comrades in the revolution. It started out with about a dozen volunteers. We would face increased levels of violence—there was more than one gun. Many volunteers were physically and sexually attacked in the course of this work.
But over the months that followed, we learned, reorganized, and grew. We developed tactics for efficiently entering the mob, reaching and surrounding the woman or women being attacked, and getting them to safety.