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07/16/2013

Egypt's other revolution: rebelling against rape

Harassmap blog women
Egyptian women chant slogans against President Mohammed Morsi during a demonstration in in Tahrir Square in Cairo last month. (AP Photo/ Manu Brabo)

Egypt’s rebooted revolution was all about freedom and democracy, no?

Not if you’re a woman.

Since the protests that led to the overthrow of President Mohamed Morsi began in late June, says Rebecca Chiao, women have been subjected to a staggering 186 sexual assaults. .

Chiao, who co-founded HarassMap in Cairo, works to prevent sexual harassment and violence by re-educating men, who see hassling women as something of a birthright. But during a frenetic two weeks of recent demonstrations in Tahrir Square, her group plunged into a riskier new venture – rescuing women who were being violently attacked.

The shamelessness of the assaults and the inertia of the onlookers convinced Chiao that a massive public awareness campaign was needed to convince Egyptian men that assaulting women is not only unacceptable, but uncool. So her group has launched its first fundraising campaign for a game-changing media blitz .

Q: This recent surge of sexual violence was horrifying. How do you explain it?
A: There are political and social elements. From what our team has seen on the ground, there’s organization behind these mob attacks. People are paid to instigate them – just as happened in Mubarak’s time. We don’t know who exactly is behind them, but it seems to be a tactic used to scare away women and distract men from the protests.

Q: Are all the attackers paid?
A: No, just a small percentage. That’s the political element. The other element is social. The “bystander effect” is the one we’re most concerned with. If the hundreds and thousands of people standing by while attacks happen – or joining in the assaults – wouldn’t participate, this wouldn’t be happening. For the men who join in, it’s a crime of opportunity.

Q: And what about the people who just stand by while women are savagely attacked?
A:  They have all sorts of excuses. The woman “deserves it” because of the way she’s dressed. Or maybe she “really wants it.” The men are poor, or they “just can’t help themselves.” It all comes down to blaming the victim or letting the harassers off the hook.

Q: What kinds of women are attacked?
A: There are victims of all ages, backgrounds and styles. We’ve even heard from men that they sometimes choose more conservatively dressed women – wearing a face veil and full length (burqa) – because they are less likely to retaliate.

Q: How did the rescue operation work?
A: We partnered with a coalition called Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment/Assault. They had four teams working at once. A hotline alerted the intervention team that women were being attacked, an intervention team was on the scene equipped with flares and Tasers, a safety team took the women away and doctors were ready to treat them because some of them had been raped with blades and needed surgery.  The intervention team didn’t use violence, they just fired flares and Tasers into the air, which broke up the assaults. Out of 186 cases, 105 women were rescued.

Q:  HarassMap has been successful in changing men’s attitudes by going to the sites of incidents and convincing people not to support harassment. Can a mass marketing media campaign work?
A: It has in the past. Right now, people subconsciously accept harassment. Men think it’s cool and manly. Or funny and flirtatious. We want them to know that it isn’t. Like smoking and littering and hate speech, it’s just plain disgusting. We want to change the conversation.

Olivia Ward has covered conflicts, politics and human rights from the former Soviet Union to South Asia and the Middle East, winning national and international awards. A film based on her work on trafficking of South Asian women, The Selling of Innocents, won an Emmy.

To donate to HarassMap’s public awareness project, email info@harassmap.org. Website is   http://harassmap.org/en/

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