February 28, 2013 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 942

Sexual Harassment On The Rise In Egypt

February 28, 2013 | By N. Shamni and I. Razafimbahiny*
Egypt | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 942


Since the beginning of the Egyptian revolution in January 2011, reports of sexual harassment in the country have increased. This phenomenon, which existed during the Mubarak era as well, has grown more prevalent due to the widespread participation of women in protests throughout Egypt and especially in Tahrir Square in Cairo. The presence of many women at the protests occasionally caused friction with the male protestors, often leading to the degradation of women and even to cases of sexual harassment and rape. In the last two months, and especially since the second anniversary of the revolution, there has apparently been an additional uptick in harassment cases. According to a report by one women's organization, during the second anniversary protests on January 25, 2013 alone there were 19 cases of sexual harassment of women.[1] Additionally, numerous testimonies of women who were sexually harassed or abused during the protests have begun to be published, which has brought this issue to the forefront of public discourse in Egypt.

Several rallies and marches in protest of this growing phenomenon were held in Egypt, and on February 12, 2013, protests in solidarity with Egyptian women were also held outside Egyptian embassies and consulates in several other countries.[2] This campaign was joined by Egyptian women's and civil society organizations, including the Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment (OpAntiSH) organization, which works to protect women during protests and has established a situation room that documents cases of harassment. It is also reported that several organizations are offering free self-defense classes for women.[3]

Opposition circles blamed the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) of encouraging and even organizing sexual assaults on women. In response to the public outcry, the regime took several measures: Attorney General Tal'at Ibrahim ordered to investigate the sexual assaults on women in Tahrir Square on January 25, 2013;[4] Prime Minister Hisham Qandil met with the head of the National Council for Women and asked the council to draft a law protecting women from violence and sexual harassment;[5] the government also discussed harsher penalties for perpetrators.[6]

Condemnations were also heard from officials across the Egyptian political spectrum, from the MB and the Salafis to the opposition parties. However, several Shura Council members from the MB and the Salafi parties accused the women themselves of being responsible for the attacks on them, claiming that they dress provocatively during protests or stand too close to men. Claims of this nature were also made by a Salafi sheikh known as Abu Islam. These statements evoked pointed criticism and demands to prosecute those who made them.

This document presents some of the reports on the phenomenon of sexual harassment, the criticism against it, and the voices accusing women themselves of responsibility for it.

Testimony Of Rape In Tahrir Square

On January 26, 2013, following numerous reports on sexual harassment of women during the protests on the day before, the Egyptian feminist website published an anonymous testimony of a woman who had been raped in Tahrir square on November 23, 2012 and had decided to tell her story out of solidarity with other women who had experienced such attacks. The following are excerpts from her testimony in English, which was posted on the organization's website: [7]

"I Faced Death And Rape Merely Because I Am Female"

"I will tell my story, [which] bears a lot of resemblance to other stories... You and I know that we have been violated. We were raped in the middle of Tahrir Square among throngs of godless people, human wolves that ravaged us [and] violated all that is private... Violence, lust and instincts – and no one who can save us. I faced death and rape merely because I am female. In this situation, I was a female, nothing more... They stripped me of my nationality and of my sense of belonging to the scene [of the protest].

"All that I knew was that there were hundreds of hands stripping me of my clothes and brutally violating my body. There is no way out, for everyone is saying that they are protecting and saving me, but all I felt was the circle [of men] around me... Someone was even trying to kiss me... I was completely naked, pushed by the mass surrounding me into an alley near Hardee's restaurant... I am in the middle of this tightly knit circle. Every time I tried to scream, to defend myself, to call for someone to rescue me, they increased their violence.

"We will not be frightened; we will not hide in our homes. Sexual harassment is a social disease that has been rampant for years, used by the regime to intimidate girls and women. But we must know that sexual harassment is a social issue, not merely a political one, and what takes place during festivities in crowded places attests to that. I do not know if this testimony will make any difference or change [anything], for the violations are still ongoing... But this is the least I can do."

Editor Of Al-Masri Al-Yawm English Website: Tahrir Square Is A Place Where People Demand Their Dignity, But It Is Also A Place Where They Violently Strip It From Others

The editor of the English-language website for the Egyptian daily Al-Masri Al-Yawm, Tom Dale, published his own eyewitness account of a sexual assault on a woman during the protests on January 25, 2013: "At 6:00 pm last Friday (25 January) I was walking in the square, in the area where the large stage normally is, just as dark was falling, when I saw another such incident [of sexual assault]. Perhaps 30 meters away, an eddy in the crowd had formed, with a woman of perhaps 40, apparently Egyptian, at its center. Concentric rings of men swirled around her as she screamed. I tried to get close to her, pushing my way through... The crowd around her eventually [swept] her to the green railings, as she continued to scream. I was just a few meters away when she disappeared from view, pushed to the floor. When I regained sight of her, she had been stripped naked, and the terror was visible on her face...

"Tahrir Square and its environs are not just a revolutionary space. They are also the terrain of brutal sexual assault. It is both a place in which people demand dignity for themselves and... [a place where they] violently strip it from others." [8]

Sahar Al-Mougy, a columnist for the Egyptian daily Al-Masri Al-Yawm, published an article describing how the assaults take place: "Human rights organizations have documented 25 cases of the physical violation of women on January 25, 2013. One by one, the victims painted a nightmarish picture that goes beyond sexual harassment. [We are talking about] coordinated group attacks that follow a deliberate plan: First, several men surround a female protester and call to 'defend' her; then they arrange themselves in a U shape and close in on her in a way that makes it difficult for [other] protestors to see what is happening... This scenario repeated itself in more than one place in Tahrir Square, and the attacks escalated to [cases of actual] rape, one of them at knifepoint.

"Those who accuse the regime of being responsible for this inhuman crime ask: Why haven't any of the sexual harassment cases [that have been reported] since the first wave of revolution [protests] been investigated? Why have these 'sexual harassment brigades' appeared now? During the rule of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces [SCAF], women were subjected to indecent virginity examinations, and were stripped and beaten [outside] the parliament... The current Egyptian regime, which calls itself Islamic, uses the same tactics... The MB regime suffers from a severe mental complex and is continuing [the policies] of the Mubarak regime, using the same means of repression... It disrespects women and sees them as objects of pleasure and as servants."[9]

Protests On The Streets And Social Networks

Outrage over the phenomenon was also expressed on the social networks. Several Facebook pages and Twitter hashtags were started, calling on the public to protest these crimes and eradicate them. Women's rights organizations are also active, and some have reportedly organized self-defense classes for women.[10] One of these organizations, OpAntiSH, set out to protect women during the protests and established a situation room to document cases of harassment. Another organization, "Not Afraid," threatened to castrate any man who sexually harasses women in Tahrir Square, and said it would establish units to defend women at protests and apprehend assailants, as well as teams to provide victims with medical and psychological assistance.[11] In the past month, these organizations held several anti-sexual harassment protests and marches throughout Egypt. In some of them, women waved knives in protest of the use of cold weapons against women during sexual assaults. Female protestors vowed to defend themselves until Tahrir Square becomes a safe place for all.[12]

Women wave knives at a February 6, 2013 march to Tahrir Square

Activists on the OpAntiSH Facebook page (with over 16,000 supporters) undertook to fight harassment in Tahrir Square and its vicinity by monitoring the area and intervening in cases of assault, and by providing support and counseling for victims. The page called to participate in protests against the phenomenon and posted photos from previous anti-harassment demonstrations.

Banner on the OpAntiSH Facebook page, with the slogan "A safe Square for everyone; no to sexual harassment" and emergency hotline numbers to be used during the mass protests.[13]

On February 12, 2013, anti-sexual harassment protests were held outside Egyptian embassies and consulates in various countries, initiated by the Facebook page called "Uprising of Women in the Arab World." In these demonstrations, women from all over the world expressed their solidarity with the Egyptian women and urged the Egyptian government to combat the problem. [14]

"February 12, 2013: Global protest against sexual terrorism targeting female Egyptian demonstrators"

From right-to-left: Protestors in Jordan, England and Lebanon.

In 2010, as part of the initiatives to fight sexual harassment, the website was opened, which features a map of areas where sexual harassment takes place based on information relayed by citizens in real time. The following map shows instances of sexual harassment that took place during the two years since the revolution. The abundance of cases in Tahrir Square and its vicinity is clearly apparent.[15]

Harassmap – "Catch the sexual harassers"

Sexual Harassment Becomes An Issue Of Conflict Between Egyptian Regime And Opposition

Egyptian Opposition: Harassment – On Orders From The Regime

The issue of sexual harassment became another topic of mutual recriminations and tension between the regime and opposition in Egypt. Oppositionists accused the MB of encouraging and even organizing sexual assaults. The National Salvation Front – the umbrella organization of the Egyptian opposition – issued a communiqué stating that the violence against female protestors was a deliberate policy by the regime meant to oppress women and deny them their right to demonstrate and express their opinions, and that it is part of the policy of regime oppression towards protestors in general: "Deliberate sexual harassment and assault by groups [of men] is an inseparable part of the oppression, torture, denial of honor, and mental and physical attack employed against the revolution and revolutionaries in general... The [National] Salvation Front holds the president, his government and the interior minister criminally responsible for this violence."[16]

Columnists for opposition newspapers accused the MB of the harassment, saying that it is meant to distance women from the political arena. Wagdi Zein Al-Din, a columnist for the Al-Wafd party daily, wrote: "What is happening in Egypt to peaceful protestors... is a deliberate policy undertaken by the MB, whether directly or by remote control... The most dangerous part of this methodical plan of oppression is the sexual harassment of women and young girls in a cruel attempt to force them to avoid taking to the streets and to sow fear in their hearts and in the hearts of their husbands and mothers... All the political forces that claim to be Islamic and trade in the religion are responsible for this grotesque phenomenon from which the women of Egypt are suffering. This does not mean that [the MB members] harass women themselves, heaven forbid. But they are behind a deliberate plan to distort the image of the Egyptian woman... There is another aspect of sexual harassment, namely the silence of the ruling MB movement, or its complete disregard of this issue, which indicates a silent consent [on its part] that women should not participate in political activity..."[17]

"Group harassment – hooliganism in its ugliest form"[18]

Egyptian journalist Sahar Al-Ga'arah wrote in the Egyptian daily Al-Masri Al-Yawm: "Women must not be ashamed of the sexual abuse they suffer. Those who should be ashamed are the sheikhs of this society, those who issue fatwas that sanction killing,[19] the powerful members of this society who dispatch the [Muslim] Brotherhood militias to spread violence..., and anyone who trades in our religion... while training young men to [attack] women and oppositionists. The stream of political Islam... looks at women and sees nothing beyond its own sexual obsession and mental disorders."[20]

The opposition's accusations that the regime was responsible for the sexual harassment escalated following a session of the Shura Council Human Rights committee, at which committee members from the MB and Salafi parties said that women were partly to blame for the sexual harassment they suffered, and said that the protests have become hotspots of indecent behavior. Radha Saleh Al-Hafnawi, of the MB, said: "I demand that women not stand among men during protests... How can we ask the interior ministry to protect a lady who stands among men?"[21] 'Izz Al-Din Al-Qumi, also of the MB, criticized those who organize protests but cannot provide security for participants. Salafi representative 'Adel 'Afifi said that a women who goes to a protest knows that she is among thugs, and therefore "must defend herself before she asks the police to do so, since police officers cannot even defend themselves." He said that protest tents and public squares have become dens of indecency, and in some cases "the woman contributes 100% to her own rape by placing herself in this situation." Saleh 'Abd Al-Salam, also a Salafi, said: "The young woman is responsible for the crime if she protests in places full of thugs. However, we must fight this phenomenon." Central Security Forces deputy head 'Abd Al-Fattah ‘Othman, who attended the session, said that young women were partly to blame for the harassment due to the way they dressed, adding that the police was not responsible for harassment in Tahrir Square.

A proposal was made to designate special protest areas for women in order to prevent contact with men.[22]

These statements by the Shura Council members sparked criticism from Muhammad Gamal Al-Din, a columnist for the daily Roz Al-Yousef, who called to prosecute the figures who had uttered them: "These are harmful statements from an institution that is supposed to pass laws to protect society, [statements] which indicate just how much those [Shura Council members] detest women and their important role [in society]. In effect, [these figures] are saying that the [woman's] natural place is in the home... raising and educating the children...

"What is happening to women in Tahrir Square and in other squares and streets in Egypt is no accident. There is a deliberate plan with specific goals, [formulated] by political streams that object to the participation of women in determining Egypt's future... It is sad that members of the Shura Council participate in harming women. [Their] statements are a crime that merits prosecution. They lay the blame on [the women] without demanding accountability from the criminals…"[23]

OpAntiSH likewise condemned the statements. In an English-language press release, it said: "Some members of the [Shura] Council held women responsible for the rapes and assaults, and once again dismissed the state's duty to protect its citizens from harm. These statements reflect the ideologies and politics of a regime which provides apologies and political rationalizations for these heinous crimes, which in some cases [amounted to] attempted murder." [24]

The bluntest statements on the issue of sexual harassment, which sparked much outrage in Egypt, came from Salafi preacher Ahmad Mahmoud 'Abdallah, aka Abu Islam, who also laid the blame for the sexual assaults on the women themselves, even justifying the phenomenon. On a February 7, 2013 show on Al-Ummah TV, which he owns, he claimed that women walk around naked and go to Tahrir Square in order to be raped, and then call on Mursi and the MB to resign. Abu Islam called these women "devilish" and "demons" and claimed that 90% of them were "Crusaders," and the rest were widows who had lost their femininity.[25]

Abu Islam also claimed that the opposition was using the issue of sexual harassment as part of its political struggle against the regime.[26]

Criticism Of The Phenomenon Among MB, Government Officials, Salafi Spokesmen

The MB rejected the accusations against it while joining the harsh condemnations of the phenomenon of sexual harassment. MB party member 'Azza Al-Jarf rejected the accusations against the MB as ludicrous, disgusting and inconsistent with the movement's Islamic character, calling those who had made them "mentally disturbed."[27] The party's deputy secretary-general, 'Adel Hammad, rejected the claim that harassment was a means of oppressing protestors, but condemned the phenomenon and called to deal with it in a comprehensive manner.[28] Constituent Assembly member and former MP Huda Ghaniya attacked the ongoing violence against women in Tahrir Square and demanded to prosecute those responsible.[29]

Following the harsh accusations, the Egyptian government called to eradicate sexual harassment. In a meeting with the head of the National Council for Women, Prime Minister Hisham Qandil told her that all means must be harnessed to combat the phenomenon and called on the council to draft a law protecting women from violence and sexual harassment.[30] The government also discussed harsher penalties for perpetrators.[31]

Salafi politicians likewise denounced the phenomenon. Nader Bakkar, spokesman for the Salafi Al-Nour party, published an article deploring these acts but blaming them on the media. According to him, the airing of pornographic scenes that display women's bodies cause confused young men to attack women: "The appalling behavior of men who sexually harass women is driven by pornography and lustful scenes in the media that depict women's bodies as commodities to be consumed... Even more tragic is the depiction of women as silent and unconcerned by what they are being subjected to. [As a result,] the mentally ill harasser believes that all women are complacent and enjoy this servility. Thus, he takes to the streets imagining that all women are at his disposal."[32]

Mu'taz 'Abd Al-Khaleq, a member of the Al-Nour party supreme committee, said that the Salafi stream had consistently condemned the cases of sexual harassment in Tahrir Square and that assaulting women was one of the ugliest crimes forbidden by Islam. However, he alleged that these acts were confined to the "civil stream" in Egypt. He claimed that, during the mass protests of the Islamic stream – which were twice the size of the civil stream's protests – there had not been a single case of sexual harassment, because the protesters were respectable people peacefully demanding their rights.[33]

* N. Shamni and I. Razafimbahiny are research fellows at MEMRI.


[1], February 2, 2013.

[2] Al-Wafd (Egypt), February 13, 2013.

[3], February 20, 2013.

[4], January 28, 2013

[5], February 9, 2013.

[6] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), February 2, 2013.

[7], January 26, 2013. The text has been edited for clarity.

[8], January 27, 2013.

[9] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), February 2, 2013.

[10], February 20, 2013.

[11], February 13, 2013.

[12] Al-Bidaya (Egypt), February 6, 2013.

[14] "Uprising of Women in the Arab World" is a campaign launched in October 2012 to promote gender equality in the Arab world. See MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis Series Report No. 896, Following The Arab Spring – Facebook Campaign Titled 'The Uprising Of Women In The Arab World', November 8, 2012.

[15], accessed February 24, 2013.

[16] Al-Wafd (Egypt), February 3, 2013.

[17] Al-Wafd (Egypt), February 13, 2013.

[18] Taken from the Facebook page "I Witnessed Sexual Harassment" (4,330 supporters), which posts calls to protest and anti-sexual harassment cartoons.

[19] See MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis Series Report No. 929, Fatwas Sanction Killing Of Egyptian Oppositionists, February 12, 2013.

[20] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), February 8, 2013.

[21] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), February 12, 2013.

[22] Al-Misriyyoun (Egypt), February 11, 2013.

[23] Roz Al-Yousef (Egypt), February 16, 2013.

[25] On February 16, 2013, Egyptian women demonstrated outside the office of the General Prosecutor in protest of Abu Islam's remarks. Copt activist Naguib Gobrail filed a lawsuit against him for insulting Egyptian women. Al-Hayat (London), February 17, 2013. Six additional lawsuits were filed against him for his comments on women, demanding that he be banned from appearing on TV. Al-Watan (Egypt), February 23, 2013. On February 23, 2013, the Attorney General's office ordered to arrest Abu Islam for four days on charges of exploiting the religion to spark fitna, harming national unity, and inciting against women in the name of Islam. Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), February 24, 2013.

[27] Al-Yawm Al-Sabi' (Egypt), February 7, 2013.

[28] Al-Bilad (Saudi Arabia), February 8, 2013.

[29], February 3, 2013.

[30], February 9, 2013.

[31] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), February 2, 2013. The issue was already discussed by government members several weeks earlier, in late January, 2013. Social Affairs Minister Nagwa Khalil said on that occasion that the government would promote a media discourse stressing the negativity of the phenomenon and calling to stop it., January 28, 2013.

[32], February 7, 2013.

[33] Al-Shurouq (Egypt), February 13, 2013.

Share this Report: