CAIRO – A string of sexual assaults on women during celebrations of Egypt’s presidential inauguration – including a mass attack on a 19-year-old student who was stripped in Cairo’s Tahrir Square – prompted outrage Monday as a video emerged purportedly showing the teenager, bloodied and naked, surrounded by dozens of men.
Seven men were arrested in connection with the assault and police were investigating 27 other complaints of sexual harassment against women during Sunday’s rallies by tens of thousands of people celebrating Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi’s inauguration late into the night, security officials said.
Sexual violence has increasingly plagued large gatherings during the past three years of turmoil following the 2011 uprising that ousted autocrat Hosni Mubarak, and women’s groups complained Monday that tough new laws have not done enough.
Twenty-nine women’s rights groups released a joint statement accusing the government of failing do enough to address the spiraling outbreak of mob attacks on women. The groups said they had documented more than 250 cases of “mass sexual rape and mass sexual assaults” from November 2012 to January 2014.
“Combating that phenomena requires a comprehensive national strategy,” said the statement signed by the women’s groups.
Last week, authorities issued a decree declaring sexual harassment a crime punishable by up to five years in prison. The decree amended Egypt’s current laws on abuse, which did not criminalize sexual harassment and only vaguely referred to such offenses as “indecent assault.”
Sexual harassment has been one of Egypt’s enduring social ills, embedded in the country’s patriarchal conservative culture, where women are seen as inferior to men. Movies often portray women as sex objects, leaving them vulnerable to men who feel empowered by the absence of a strong legal deterrent.
Sexual assaults have increased dramatically in ferocity and in number in the three years since Mubarak’s ouster, with Tahrir square, birthplace of the 2011 uprising, the site of multiple sexual attacks on women amid the large crowds.
In the latest incident, video footage posted on social media purportedly shows the student completely naked amid a crowd of men, parts of her body bloodied as policemen struggled to escort her out of Tahrir. The video appeared authentic and was consistent with AP reporting of the incident.
Seven men were arrested in connection with the attack on the student, who was hospitalized, said the officials. They did not elaborate on her condition and spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
The Interior Ministry, in charge of police, identified the seven suspects and gave their ages as between 15 and 49. It said they were arrested for “harassing several girls” but made no mention of the student. A policeman was injured while the seven were being arrested, the ministry added.
Authorities investigating other reports of sexual assaults were examining a dozen videos from security cameras or from bystanders who filmed the incidents on their mobile phones, the officials said.
They said the footage suggested organized attacks, with groups of men luring victims away from densely crowded spots before encircling them as they assaulted them. Many brandished knives which they used to threaten victims or against anyone attempting to come to their rescue.
Further causing an uproar were comments by a TV anchorwoman during a live report from a correspondent covering the Tahrir celebrations. When the correspondent for al-Nahar TV told the anchorwoman there had been several cases of sexual harassment, she laughed and said it’s “because they are happy.”
The anchorwoman, Maha Bahnassy, denied Monday that her comment was in response to the harassment incidents.
“I was, along with my guests, commenting on people’s joy, not the harassment,” she said on her Facebook page.
The anti-sexual harassment decree issued last week amends Egypt’s current laws on the abuse. Those convicted face six months to five years in prison, with the maximum punishment reserved for offenders holding positions of power over their victims, such as when the offender is the woman’s boss or is armed.
Repeat offenders would see their sentences doubled, the decree said. Along with the maximum five-year sentence, offenders can be fined up to 5,000 Egyptian pounds, or about $714.
Last year, a joint report by the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, Egypt’s Demographic Center and the National Planning Institute found that more than 99 percent of hundreds of women surveyed in seven of the country’s 27 provinces reported experiencing some form of sexual harassment, ranging from verbal harassment to rape.
The breakdown in security in the wake of the 2011 uprising that toppled Mubarak has left Egypt’s streets even more unsafe for women.
Initiatives to counter harassment have multiplied. Volunteer groups started escorting women, especially during political gatherings. Activists offered self-defense classes for women and social networking sites launched “name and shame” campaigns.