Egypt’s rape culture shows reach of misogyny

Credit: Paola Mathus/ Credit: Paola Mathus/

On Egyptian national television, accomplished Egyptian lawyer Nabih al-Wahsh said the unthinkable. “I say when a girl walks about [in revealing clothing], it is a patriotic duty to harass her and a national duty to rape her,” he asserted. Al-Wahsh’s comments are perplexing, disappointing, and the sort to spark feelings of indignation in any decent person. What is more upsetting, however, is that they were not made in a vacuum; they are a part of a pandemic of sexual assault against women that has been sweeping across Egypt for years.

According to a 2008 survey by the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights, 83 percent of Egyptian women and 98 percent of foreign women who visit Egypt say they have been sexually harassed. Other studies, by the United Nations (UN) for example, report other figures as high as 99.3 percent.

Before 2006, sexual assault was barely discussed in any national manner in Egypt. It wasn’t a politically divisive topic. Many viewed it as a foreign — Western — notion inapplicable to Egyptian culture. Then came the Eid-al-Fitr holiday in 2006 where more than 20 female demonstrators were sexually assaulted by groups of hundreds of men arriving in buses as nearby police did nothing.

Since 2006, mass sexual assault has become a grim but publicized part of Egyptian public life. At religious festivals, political protests, and in densely crowded urban locations, hundreds of men gather around a single woman and commit sexual assault. It’s called the circle of hell. Victims report being groped, stripped, penetrated, and raped while men in the outer perimeter of the circle deter rescuers from intervening. The ages of those assaulted range from seven to 70.

It is possible that mass sexual assault has always been commonplace in Egypt, but kept out of public and international discourse. The fall of the Mubarak regime in 2011 may have finally given women the political freedom to speak out publicly.

There’s also evidence that the regime change caused an uptick in mass sexual violence: 500 cases were reported between June 2012 and June 2014, 25 times more than the previous year’s figures. At political rallies and even at the inauguration of President Fatteh, women could be heard screaming.

Egypt’s issue truly entered international consciousness when acclaimed CBS journalist Lara Logan was assaulted in 2011. That night, while in the middle of a large crowd, her camera crew’s lights went dead. The surrounding crowds of men exploited the shroud of darkness to rip off Logan’s clothes, injure her, and sexually assault her for 30 minutes. She was flown back to the United States the next day, where she spent four days in the hospital. The horrifying event drew public shock, and even a private call from former President Barack Obama to Logan.

The consistency of mass sexual assault paints a grim picture of the state of gender equality in Egypt. These attacks are a tool used to shame women and dissuade them from participating in public life. Moreover, male attackers are protected by systemic advantages such as a complacent police force and a misogynistic society. In fact, one survey found that up to 60 percent of higher-educated Egyptian women blame the victims for being attacked, attributing the actions of men to promiscuous clothing, a hateful ideology that al-Wahsh parroted on national television. In contrast, most survivors of the circle of hell reported wearing conservative clothing and no make-up when attacked.

Prejudice against women is a part of many cultures the world over, including Western culture. Pinpointing a root cause for Egypt’s mass sexual violence has proven especially difficult. Some, like journalist Shereen El Feki, argue that unemployment, social media, and a newfound lack of family surveillance are to blame. Others point to misplaced sexual desire, sexual deprivation, and a general wish to dominate women. The recurring theme, nonetheless, is a general disregard for women as people.
In response, groups such as Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment (OpAntiSH) have sprung up to aid Egyptian women. Volunteers wear padded clothing, helmets, and gloves as they attempt to get women from the center of mobs, often forming protective physical circles around them. Protective gear is especially crucial, since mobs created ‘tea stands’, where they have boiling water ready to be doused on rescuers. OpAntiSH also provides spare clothing, medical treatment, and counseling to survivors.

OpAntiSH’s efforts are virtuous, to say the least. The group responded to 15 events in 2013 alone; nonetheless, on its own, cannot be relied on to crack societal change. After all, 80 Egyptian women were once infamously assaulted by mobs in a single day — more than OpAntiSH can handle. The current lack of repercussions, both judicial and societal, is what encourages men to join in these heinous acts publicly. Crowd-control is a must, as is a police force concerned enough to don riot gear and disperse malevolent mobs as they form. This solution doesn’t address the root cause of mass sexual violence: misogyny. It also requires extensive retraining of Cairo’s police force, which could be costly or ineffective.

The United States is currently experiencing a cross-industry revelation of systemic sexual assault against women. Egypt’s mass sexual assault is simply a different side of the same coin. The wider issue of misogyny is ingrained in Egypt’s culture and harder to solve. Sexism cannot be scared out of men or dispersed like mobs, but it can be unlearned. Brave Egyptians are launching campaigns, such as street art projects about sexual assault, that force their fellow citizens to grapple with societal misconceptions about women. And therein lies hope for the future, that enough minds will be changed and that Egyptians will see it as a patriotic duty to protect women and a national duty to uplift them.