“With a Smile on His Face”: New Account of Sexual Assault in Tahrir Square

Another day, another revolution in Egypt. And with that new revolution comes a new outbreak of mass sexual assaults against women in Tahrir Square.

This is not a new phenomenon. In February 2011, CBS News correspondent Lara Logan was in Tahrir Square to report on the resignation of former president Hosni Mubarak, when a crowd of men overpowered her crew, stripped her, and subjected her to a prolonged and brutal sexual assault. In June 2012, documentarian Natasha Smith suffered a similar assault at the hands of a mob who stripped her and violated her with their hands as they dragged her, naked, through the square. There have been many more attacks against Egyptian women following the same pattern: a group of men isolate a woman, then surround her with what one activist has called “the circle of hell” – a ring of men who strip and assault the woman, surrounded by outer circles of accomplices who enable the attack by pretending to help the victim, and distracting the crowd from what is happening.

I recently spoke to Joost Schefferss, a 21 year old journalism student from the Netherlands who is currently studying Arabic in Cairo, about an attack that he and his friends suffered in Tahrir Square last Sunday. Thankfully, his group was rescued shortly after the assault began, narrowly avoiding a more serious fate.

Joost had gone to the square with two friends: another male student from the Netherlands, and a young Swedish woman. (His friends prefer not to be identified.) They were accompanied by two Egyptian journalists. Although Joost and his friends had no involvement in Egyptian politics, he felt an “intense strong feeling to go there to see what was going on.” He sensed that history was happening nearby, and thought it would be a shame to miss it.

They arrived at the square in the late afternoon, while the sun was still bright, and spent several hours there without incident. The atmosphere was happy, “like a festival, or something like that.” Helicopters flying Egyptian flags circled overhead, and the crowd cheered them, taking the choppers’ presence as a sign of support from the army. “It was a good atmosphere, great, really.” He took photographs, and tweeted about the excitement of the crowd.

As evening fell, and it began to get dark, however, Joost felt the mood of the crowd begin to change. “Be careful, be careful,” people in the crowd began to say to them, in English. His group linked together to walk single file, “like a train.” Each held onto a shoulder of the person in front of them, with the two Egyptian journalists bracketing the line in front and back, an engine and a caboose.

They began to make their way out of the square. Suddenly, “at a certain moment, the people were pushing, pushing, pushing. I didn’t have any idea what was going on.”

“It kept on going, and I felt a guy pushing me on my back, and again.” He briefly thought that it was merely the density of the moving crowd, but when he turned, he saw that there was plenty of space. Joost realized that the pushes were deliberate attacks meant to separate the group. Surprisingly, their attackers were teenagers. The person pushing Joost was “like a kid, of 17 or 18 years old.”

As he struggled to stay on his feet, Joost realized that his Swedish friend had lost hold of his shoulder. “I started to look, where she is, where she is, where she is? And I saw her, being pushed through the crowds by the Egyptian journalists, to get away from there.”

“She was pushed away, and the other guys were pushing me very hard, front and back.” He tried to follow, but the young woman was surrounded by a group of youths who were sexually assaulting her. “She got touched – hands were all over her whole body, grabbing her.” The two Egyptian journalists were trying to protect her, but they were unable to escape.

The Egyptian boys around Joost and his other friend continued to slam into them, trying to knock them to the ground as they tried to reach the young woman to help her. Joost felt certain that she was the main object of the attack. “That is the tactic of these groups. They push, and they push and they push, and at a certain moment the girl is gone.”

During the struggle, Joost made eye contact with one of the attackers. Horrifyingly, he looked like was having fun. “I looked the guy straight in his eyes… his face was really, really happy. He was enjoying it, definitely. There was a big smile on his face.”

Joost does not know how long the assault lasted, because he was just focused on keeping his feet, and getting to his friend. Suddenly, a group of broad-shouldered, muscular Egyptian men ran up to them and “smashed” away the youths committing the assault. With the Egyptian journalists, their rescuers joined hands to form a circle and made their way through the crowd, out of the square. Joost believes that things could have gotten much worse if they had not been rescued. “We were really lucky, after all.”

Once they were out of the square, most of their protectors disappeared – probably back into the square, to return to their patrol. However, “one of them walked with us to our car, just to make sure we arrived there, as safe as possible.” Joost would like to find the group, to thank them for their help, but has not been able to do so thus far. The rescuers never introduced themselves, so it is unclear whether they were volunteers with an official organization like Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment, or just concerned citizens.

“The guy who accompanied us to the car, he had a red t-shirt and a red key card with a red card on it, but I don’t know exactly what the red card was from. I also don’t know who he was, where he was from, or what else – I’ve got no clue at all.”

I asked Joost if he had any sense of what the attackers’ motivation might have been. He offered a few general theories, such as the mistrust created by Egyptian ad campaigns telling people not to trust foreigners, and the frustration felt by young men who are unable to get jobs or marry, but while those explanations might explain Egypt’s generally high rates of sexual harassment, they don’t explain the specific phenomenon of mob assaults on women in Tahrir Square. Joost has also heard that there is credible evidence that other sexual assaults were designed to drive women and journalists out of the square. “There were signals that those attacks were structured to get the journalists off Tahrir and make everyone afraid to come there and protest.”

That doesn’t seem to fit his own experience, though. “They could have been instructed by special forces to [attack us], but I really doubt it, because they were so young.” He imagines that if such attacks were planned, the organizers would send “a big group of strong men, to make sure that it happens. Not a bunch of kids.” (He hastened to add that this was just his own impression, however – he doesn’t have enough information to comment about the phenomenon of these assaults more generally.)

Whatever the motivation behind this particular assault, at this stage it seems clear that these attacks are taking place with horrifying frequency. Last Friday, a Dutch journalist was reportedly gang raped in Tahrir, and remains hospitalized for her injuries. Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment, a volunteer organization in Cairo that sends volunteer patrols into Tahrir Square to protect women from attack, received 46 reports of mob sexual assaults on women on Sunday, 17 Monday, and more than 20 yesterday. The victims of yesterday’s attacks reportedly included “grandmothers, mothers with their children,” and 7 year old girls.

Despite the ongoing assaults, however, women continue to participate in the Tahrir demonstrations, and to volunteer with the bodyguard groups patrolling to rescue women from sexual assaults. Three cheers for their bravery, which is an example to us all.

WTF Friday 12/2/11

Vladimir Putin appeals to voters and politicians to not “make politics a circus.” Yea, this guy.
I though this article was actually going to explain how Egyptian voters have figured a way to “boycott boycotts.” It did not. I even Googled “how to boycott a boycott.” Nada. Would it just be to vote? If anyone has a creative solution to this I’d love to hear it.

WTF Friday, 4/29/11

Uh, not exactly great timing, dude.

Invitations to the royal wedding appear arbitrary, but the feelings hurt are not!
Say it ain’t so, Egypt. Just when I thought I knew you guys…
This dudelaughs” at immunity deal for Saleh. This is such lazy journalism. Was it a belly-laugh, a snigger, a guffaw? The people have a right to know.

Some Great Comments, Deserving Of Their Own Post

Man, you guys are awesome – my Lara Logan post from last week got some really excellent comments.

I recommend you go check out the whole debate for yourself if you haven’t already, but here are some highlights that were particularly deserving of recognition:

From Jina Moore, in response to an anonymous comment about the dangers of “a mob of Muslim people”:

“[...] When you say “If you have a mob of Muslim people — and I use that term literally, because that throng of people was whipped into a political and ideological frenzy” you make it clear that you think the word “Muslim” signifies a political ideology. I’ve been lax on the Twitter lately, but isn’t what we’re seeing across the Arab region a demonstration of precisely the opposite? There’s a lot of Muslims out there in Yemen, Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain… and they seem to have very different politics and ideologies from each other. A fact which we should have known, of course, but which has been made rather abundantly clear, no?

Putting to rest the problems in the sloppy language of that comment — this makes me wonder what’s happening to other women we haven’t heard about. I saw some action on Twitter, in the late days of January, to share albums of photos of women in the Cairo protests, and clicking through them made it abundantly clear to me how missing their images were from my news sources (note: I don’t have access to TV, which I know has been the lead on this).

If we don’t see images of women claiming agency at a remarkable moment, what else are we missing?”

Yup.

From Melinda, who I think really nails the heart of the issue:

“What I find crazy about all this (besides all the stuff you’ve mentioned) is everyone seems to see Logan’s courage as a bad thing. Yes, she knew she was going into a dangerous situation, and yes, she paid a price for it. That’s called being brave. When soldiers do it, they get medals. Why is it that a girl who did it (to do a job that I consider as necessary as the military’s) gets scolded?”

Word. As she pointed out to me later, if a fireman rescues a child from a burning building and gets hurt in the process, we don’t yell at him for being so temptingly flammable, we thank him for saving the kid. When we yell at Lara Logan for not being more careful, we’re implicitly also saying that her work wasn’t valuable enough to be worth it. Not cool.

And from Vivyenne, responding to the idea that Logan should have covered up with a headscarf because she was in a Muslim country:

“Having lived in Egypt, as a foreign (though not blonde) woman, I would offer a few remarks:

I would agree that some measure of sexual harassment is endemic in the society; I’ve heard it described as “Egypt’s cancer”, as in, a particular social problem in that country, and the various bits of north Africa and the Middle East I’ve been through so far have shown it to be more pronounced in Egypt than elsewhere; it’s supposedly linked to the larger social problem that men are unable to marry until they have ‘established’ themselves (hard to do in a poor country). There are no excuses for it, and Egypt is going to need to deal with this sooner rather than later.

But regarding covering up – yes, wearing a headscarf makes you blend into the crowd, at least until they see your face and/or hear your accent, so it is unlikely a woman (in a headscarf or not) speaking into a television camera for a foreign station in English would go unnoticed. Wearing a hijab is not a question of (respecting a) culture, it’s a question of religion (any time I was wearing a hijab and not in a mosque I was repeatedly asked why), though covering up otherwise is expected. And finally – my colleagues and friends told me that women in niqabs (the burqa-like covering with a little window for the eyes, or sometimes with mesh over the eyes) were often harrassed more “because the men were convinced they were missing something”. Headscarves do not make it go away.

That said, mob violence isn’t a reflection of culture. It has absolutely nothing to do with Egyptian, or Muslim, or anything else – genocide can be committed in Germany or Cambodia, massacres happen in Algeria, Congo, and East Timor, torture happens in Argentina and China and all kinds of other places, and a vast majority of the more “heinous” atrocities is related to mobs and mob dynamics. The fact that it was expressed as a sexual assault is probably because she’s female, but men have been raped in these kinds of attacks as well. I can refer you to extensive literature on this subject if you’re curious. [...]“

You guys make me feel very smug about how cool our readers are.

Lara Logan’s Tragic Sexual Assault: Apparently the Fault of CBS News, for Sending a Purty Young Thang out in Public

Tellingly, the first person to send me the story about Lara Logan’s sexual assault and beating did so in an email whose subject line read “this story is horrible, but I think the comments are even worse.”

And so they were. The internet, it appeared, was largely in agreement: what happened to Logan was terrible, but hardly surprising – what else could possibly be the result when a girl with “model good looks” is “sent” to a public place full of unrestrained Muslims?

Never mind that the risks to foreign reporters covering the Egyptian revolution were well known. This, after all, was the story that brought us Jack Shenker reporting from the back of a police van, Anderson Cooper being punched repeatedly, NY Times reporters being arrested by the Mukhabarat, and Al Jazeera English correspondents crouching behind walls to shield themselves from gunfire as they reported from Tahrir square. No, this story was different – hadn’t we seen that there was a youthful blonde in it now?

Excuse me while I roar with frustration. Not just at the extreme cases, well covered elsewhere, like Nir Rosen’s astonishingly bad-taste tweets, or Debbie Schlussel’s unhinged racism. No, what really has me ticked off are people like my twitter follower @brainofmatter, who lamented other people’s “outrageously sexist” comments, before launching into a tweeted mini-tirade about how “idealistic and dumb” it was for CBS to “send” Logan to report on the story, because she was “chosen largely for her model good looks,” and that “made her more of a target.”

ROARRRR!

I am attempting to be nice, because I’m sure that @brainofmatter doesn’t think that he’s being sexist. No, he’s just telling it like it is – that pretty women are irresistible to rapists, so it’s irresponsible for them to go places where rapists might find them. If that means that they can’t be permitted – sorry, “sent” – to do jobs like report from the scene of revolutions, well, that’s too bad. Obviously, we must all do anything within our power to prevent women from being raped, even if we must undermine their autonomy, livelihoods, and professional integrity (“model good looks” my ass) to do it.

But you know what? I don’t think I’m going to succeed in being nice, because that’s just fucking ridiculous. First of all, to say that Lara Logan was in Tahrir Square largely because of her “model good looks” is pretty much just textbook misogyny. Her looks do not cancel out any, much less all, of the myriad other relevant facts. Such as her four years of reporting from the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq; her job title, which, last time I checked, was “Chief Foreign Correspondent for CBS News;” or that she had bravely returned to report on the story despite being arrested earlier in the month, and expelled from the country. To discard all of her hard work, and deny her accomplishments, merely because she is an attractive woman, is damn sexist.

And second of all, guess what? If women never went anywhere where we risked being sexually assaulted, we’d never go anywhere, period. We certainly couldn’t go to work on foreign aid projects. Or to U.S. military academies. Not to college. Not on dates. Not to parties. Not to bars. Or on cruises. Not to work as models. Or security contractors. Except that even if we never went any of those places, we’d still be screwed (pun intended) because of course a high percentage of rapes happen in the home, committed by perpetrators whom the victims know. Putting the responsibility on women to prevent sexual assault by restricting their own behavior – or on their employers to limit it for them – won’t actually solve the problem, it will just reinforce gendered norms about what “good” women “should” do.

And, finally, the idea that Lara Logan was “more at risk” of sexual assault because she was attractive is laughable. I’d be interested to know what fuckability threshold women should stay below in order to be safe from rape. Could Logan have just added some thick glasses? What if she had spinach in her teeth? How about if she gained 20 pounds – then would she be safe from the mob of 200 people who apparently decided to subject her to a prolonged beating and repeated sexual assaults because her delicate beauty stirred their romantic longings? Give me a break. Rape is about power, not how cute the victim is.

So seriously, internets, pull yourselves together. Lara Logan is a professional who suffered a horrific attack in the course of doing a dangerous job. Women all over the world take similar risks every day. We do so because we don’t see “vulnerability to rape” as our most salient characteristic. It’s about time everyone else picked up on that too.

WTF Friday 2/11/11

All this revolution stuff has got Joe Biden “fired up” to bring us a piping fresh, hot metaphor: “All of this began when a fruit vendor in Tunisia, fed up with an indignity of a corrupt government and a stagnant economy literally set himself on fire, and in doing so ignited the passions of millions and millions of people throughout that region.” Keep bringin the heat, guys.

For all you gossip-hounds, here are some autocrats that America is chill with.

Uh, thanks but no thanks, China. Clearly I’m not the only one who prefers my tomato paste garden-fresh.

WTF Friday, 2/4/2011

Missed pun opportunity of the week: Demockracy. Am I the only one in journalism (erm…) trying anymore?

A U.S. appeals court has upheld the landmark September ruling that companies cannot be tried in U.S. courts for violations of international human rights laws. The suit, brought against Shell by families of seven Nigerians who were executed by a former military government for protesting oil exploration in the 1990s, may make its way to the Supreme Court. This is definitely one to pay attention to.

Are Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez trying to tell Evo Morales something? You knee one guy in the groin and all of a sudden it’s an international intervention…

PS, there’s also some other stuff going on.

Glued to Al Jazeera English

Like many of you, we’ve been obsessively following events in Egypt.  (And compulsively posting about it on Twitter at @WrongingRights.)

As we write this, it’s 15 minutes before sunrise in Cairo and protesters in Tahrir Square have come under heavy gunfire overnight from Mubarak supporters.  Four people are confirmed dead, many more injured.  The eyewitness accounts from protesters being interviewed by Al Jazeera are both heartbreaking and inspiring in their bravery.  Their message to the world is simple:  We will die before we give up.

If you’re not watching, you should be.

WTF Friday, 1/28/2011

“The Egyptian government appears ready to do all it can to force citizens back into their homes.” Funny. My mom would cut off the Internet to force me to go outside.

For Belarusian president Aleksander Lukashenko, sanctions, sanctions, and more sanctions. Invoking a Belarusian folk saying, the prez had this to say: “Don’t start a fire at your neighbour’s house. It might just spread to yours.” Dare I say, another hot metaphor?

Ugandan gay activist, David Kato, was beaten to death in his home on Wednesday. To make matters worse, some asshole priest decided, amongst hundreds of mourners, to go on his (wholly original) “homosexuality is evil” rant. Really doing God’s work there.