How Egypt Quashes Dissent: Sexual Violence

New Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi claims to oppose sexual violence from security forces and others, but there is bloodcurdling evidence that it is still used to silence critics.

Graffiti in Cairo
Sarah Carr

CAIRO — Hend (not her real name), an outspoken political activist, is used to being watched and threatened.

She rose to prominence during Egypt's Jan. 25 revolution and says that by the end of 2011 she was regularly receiving anonymous phone threats. On the day of a planned political protest or meeting, the voice would tell her that she should prepare herself to be raped that evening.

She was temporarily banned from television appearances because of her criticism of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and its abuses. The producers told her they feared for their own well-being if they hosted her. Someone posted a video on YouTube of fabricated pictures of Hend in sexually suggestive poses with a man.

“It was very obvious that it was created by pro-SCAF trolls,” Hend says. “My family saw the video. It was bad, and damaging, but I continued.”

Between June 2012 and July 2013, during Mohamed Morsi’s presidency, the threats stopped, but online insults continued. Whereas under SCAF’s rule the insults had focused on her honor and chastity as a woman, they began to focuse more on religion during the Morsi era. It was an important difference, and one that would figure in events to come.

Hend is not a Brotherhood member or supporter. But in the run-up to June 30 and Morsi’s removal by the military following mass protests, she said publicly that Egypt was ripe for a coup, and that she feared Brotherhood rule would be replaced by what she described as Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s brand of “military religious fascism.”

She publicly denounced the August 2013 clearing of the Rabea al-Adaweya sit-in as a massacre. At this point, she says, the telephone threats started again. On social media, she was characterized as a “Brotherhood whore.” Someone tweeted her telephone number and described her as a Brotherhood supporter. Surveillance by plain-clothes men, which had started under SCAF but stopped under Morsi, intensified.

Three men on rotating four- or five-hour shifts stationed themselves outside her home, she says. They followed her. On one occasion one of the men followed her to a café, sat at the table next to her and ordered coffee.

“Then he looked me in the face and photographed me,” Hend says. “The monitoring isn’t about keeping tabs. It’s a threat to tell me that they’re watching me.”

Matters worsened at the end of 2013. She has long known that her phone was tapped, but then printouts of her emails and private online chats with her partner were slipped under her door. At the beginning of December 2013, she was asked to go to the headquarters of the National Security Agency.

“They played good cop, bad cop with me,” she recalls. “An officer said, ‘You’re educated, you can travel. Why don’t you leave the country?’ Then they told me that they had recordings of me speaking about the military during the SCAF era and that they would hand them over to the media and claim that they were made recently. ‘The people will eat you alive,’ he told me.”

On Dec. 26, Hend was alone late at night in a secluded, non-residential street in central Cairo. She remembers that it was icy cold. As she was putting things in a car she had borrowed from a friend, three men appeared from behind and grabbed her.

An entrenched problem

Women’s and human rights groups in Egypt have long argued that the country suffers from a chronic sexual harassment problem. Some of this “harassment” takes the form of serious sexual assault, most commonly mob attacks in the anonymity of large crowds. Since 2011, these assaults have occurred most often during political demonstrations.

Until recently, the Egyptian state has consistently failed to enforce laws criminalizing sexual assault. The state has even used sexual violence as the ultimate weapon to quash dissent.

Egyptian NGO Al-Nadeem Center for the Rehabilitation of the Victims of Violence and Torture has, over the years, produced numerous reports detailing the torture and sexual assault of men and women inside detention centers. Among the cases is that of Amal Farouk, who reported that she was repeatedly raped in the mid-1990s while in police custody to force her to reveal the whereabouts of her husband, who was wanted on criminal charges.

Society’s socially conservative attitude towards women and sex, and a general atmosphere of repression, combine to allow security forces to commit sexual assault with impunity.

During a May 25, 2005, demonstration by Kefaya, the Egyptian Movement for Change, Hosni Mubarak’s Interior Ministry let plain-clothes thugs loose on protesters. Female protesters were sexually assaulted while police forces penned them in. One journalist, Nawal Ali, was almost entirely stripped of her clothes under the eyes of security officials who did not intervene. The media attacked Ali and accused her of ripping her own clothes off. Last year, the African Commission for Human and Peoples’ Rights held the Egyptian government responsible for the attack and ordered it to pay compensation to the four women claimants, which the government has yet to do. Ali died in 2009.

The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), which filed the case with the African Commission, describes the tactics used on what was dubbed Black Wednesday as an attempt to exclude women from public life and punish them for participating in political activism.

The events of Black Wednesday were not the first of their kind. What made the assault different is that it was caught on camera, the images shocking and irrefutable.

It took place in public and in such an organized manner, leaving no doubt that it was planned and premeditated,” says Aida Seif al-Dawla, a psychiatrist with Al-Nadeem Center.

An official state tactic

But if it was a turning point, Black Wednesday marked the start of a deterioration, a clear convergence of state repression and sexual violence. It has become an established tactic that security forces continue to use against both men and women.

In March 2011, female protesters arrested in Tahrir Square were stripped and subjected to so-called virginity tests while surrounded by soldiers. Sisi, now Egypt’s president, defended the “tests,” saying that they had been done to “protect the girls from rape, and the soldiers and officers from accusations of rape.”

One of the victims, Samira Ibrahim, filed a lawsuit. But the courts eventually exonerated the military doctor who conducted the tests.

On Dec. 16, 2011, during clashes outside the cabinet building following the military dispersal of a sit-in, female detainees were “subjected to insults of a sexual nature for being present,” Egyptian women’s rights NGO Nazra said in a statement at the time.

The most notorious image that emerged from the December 2011 violence was that of a female protester knocked to the ground by army soldiers, who then proceeded to kick and stomp on her — on live television. During the attack the victim’s coat came open, revealing her bra. Commentators later questioned why she was wearing a garment that opened so easily and nothing but a bra underneath. The identity of the woman has never been revealed, and the soldiers responsible for the attack never held to account.

Hend's brutal rape

After the three men grabbed Hend, they frog-marched her toward a wall. She says that one man did all the talking. He graphically told her what was about to happen, calling her a “street dog” and threatenig to cut her genitals.

“Then he ripped my leggings open at the crotch with the knife,” Hend recalls.

The knife drew blood. The man wiped his fingers in the blood before wiping it on Hend’s mouth. He then gave the knife to the second man, she says, while the third filmed the attack with a mobile phone.

The first man instructed Hend to get down on her knees.

“He told me to kneel down in the place I belong and perform my role.”

While she was forced to perform oral sex, the second man held the knife to her neck. With his other hand, he penetrated Hend rectally.

“The man ejaculated on my face,” Hend recalls. “Then he put his penis inside me briefly and asked me which I preferred better. He told me to get up, and said that they would send the video to my ‘queer’ of a boyfriend.”

Worse over the past year

On July 1, Amnesty International issued a report saying that at least 16,000 people have been detained since Morsi’s removal. Once women are detained, Seif al-Dawla says that the use of sexual violence against them “is massive and systematic. The grabbing of breasts and sexual verbal abuse is routine.”

She points out that the degree of violence is carefully calibrated, and is less brutal towards seasoned political activists who will not remain silent.

“The detention of women is always associated with sexual harassment and sometimes assault as well,” she says. “I think what is new is not the nature of the assault as much as the carelessness and sense of impunity that the officers feel.”

Dalia Abdel Hamid, Gender and Women's Rights Program Officer at EIPR, says that sexual violence is used because of the deep-rooted notion that it can break a victim. Even if it does not break them, shame often silences victims.

But not always. On July 1, independent news website Yanair published an interview with Al-Azhar student Nada Ashraf, who says she was sexually assaulted during clashes on the university campus in December 2013. The student also gave an interview, with her face blurred, to Al Jazeera.

Ashraf said she had been trying to get to an exam but got caught up in the fierce violence between protesting students and the police. When she saw an officer grab a female student and touch her chest, Ashraf objected.

“So you think you’re a man?” the officer said to Ashraf as he grabbed her instead. “I’ll show you I’m a man, prove to you that I’m tough.”

Ashraf says the masked officer took her into a police vehicle and raped her. She was then detained for 18 days. Her lawyer advised Ashraf’s mother to forget about the incident because of the scandal.

“I am not scared, not embarrassed and not broken,” Ashraf told Yanair. “I didn’t do anything that I should feel scared or that I should hide anything. I won’t let anyone make me feel ashamed or wrong.”

Can Sisi be believed?

There was a particularly brutal mob sexual assault in Tahrir Square June 8 during celebrations of Sisi’s inauguration. After a video of it was posted online, Sisi ordered enforcement of the law against sexual harassment, an unacceptable form of conduct that he described as “alien to the best principles of Egyptian culture.”

Seif al-Dawla is skeptical of Sisi’s pronouncements, describing them as “brazen, and an insult to our anger, intelligence and memory from the same person who defended virginity testing and who, in almost every speech, flirts with Egyptian women.”

Hend says she continues to be monitored. The men have not moved from outside her house. She believes they are from the Interior Ministry because they are not from the neighborhood. They follow her, and their activity increases and decreases according to political events in the country.

On one occasion, the man who raped her telephoned to ask whether she misses him and the “taste” of him.

Hend is undergoing therapy and is on anti-depressants but says she cannot discuss the attack with her therapist because of the risk of his betraying her confidence. She is plagued by flashbacks of the assault. In mid-May, Hend received a 30-second video of part of the attack.

She says the timing was deliberate, meant to intimidate her ahead of the presidential election. Hend has no doubt about why the police chose to use sexual violence to target her.

“The police do something different with every individual,” she says. “They concentrate on the weaknesses. My weakness is that I come from a conservative family. They've got me where it hurts.”

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Reading Rumi In Kabul: A Persian Poet's Lesson For Radical Islam

Born some eight centuries ago, the famed poet and philosopher Rumi offered ideas on religion that bear little resemblance to the brand of Islam being imposed right now in Afghanistan by the Taliban regime.

The work of 13th-century poet Rumi still resonsates today

Mihir Chitre

Among the various Afghan cities that the Taliban has invaded and apparently "reclaimed" in recent weeks is Balkh, a town near the country's north-western border. Interestingly, it was there, about 800 years ago, that a man called Jalal ad-Din Mohammad Balkhi, better known as Rumi, was born.

Some see the grotesque exhibitionism of the Taliban advance as a celebration of Islam or a "going back to the roots" campaign. As if followers of Islam were always like this, as if every willing Muslim always propagated austerity and oppressiveness. As if it was always meant to be this way and any shred of liberalism was a digression from the quest of the religion.

In fact, a look at the history of the religion — and of the region — tells a different story, which is why there's no better time than now to rediscover the wisdom of the poet Rumi, but without doing away with its religious context.

In a world where Islam is a popular villain and lots of terrible acts across the world in the name of the religion have fueled this notion among the West and among people from other religions, it's paramount that we understand the difference between religion as a personal or spiritual concept and religion as an institution, a cage, a set of laws created to control us.

Why do you stop praying?

To begin with, and largely due to the film Rockstar, the most famous Rumi quote known to Indians goes like this: "Out beyond the ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there's a field. I'll meet you there."

Rumi's original Persian verse, however, uses the words kufr (meaning infidelity) and Imaan (meaning religion), which was translated as "wrongdoing" and "rightdoing." To me, the original verse surpasses the translation with a vital, often missed, often deliberately forgotten, interpretation, which is to highlight the fact that there is humanity, love and compassion or a certain kind of mystical quality to life beyond the concept of religion and that is the ultimate place, the place where Rumi invites us to meet him.

It would be incorrect now to read this and think of Rumi as irreligious. In fact, he was quite the opposite. But his interpretation of religion was personal, spiritual and not institutional or communal or exhibitionist.

In one of his poems, translated by Coleman Banks as "Love Dogs" in English, a man who has stopped praying to God because he never got a response meets "Khidr," an angel messenger, in his dream:

Why did you stop praising (or praying)?

Because I've never heard anything back.

This longing you express is the return message.

To me, through this poem, it's clear that Rumi advocates for a personal relationship with God. In fact, he goes on to say that being true to God is to long for his validation or nod, that life is longing.

A copy of Rumi's spiritual couplets at the Mevl\u00e2na Museum in Konya, Turkey

A copy of Rumi's spiritual couplets at the Mevlâna Museum in Konya, Turkey — Photo: Georges Jansoone/Wikimedia

Don't sweep the history of Islam with the broom of radicalism

For those familiar with the European literature of the 20th century, I could say that this echoes the ideas of Samuel Beckett. But remember: Rumi lived 800 years ago, at the heart of what we call the "Muslim world." To equate Islam on the whole with repressiveness and hostility, as many of us do today, might just be a criminal contradiction then.

It's also interesting to note that after the Quran, Rumi's is probably the most widely read work in the Islamic world, which suggests that Rumi's ideas, which may sound too progressive for anyone remotely associated with Islam in today's world, have, in fact, been accepted and cherished by the Islamic world for centuries. Sweeping the whole history of the Islamic world with the broom of radicalism wouldn't then be the fairest assessment of either the religion or of radicalism.

This physical world has no two things alike.
Every comparison is awkwardly rough.
You can put a lion next to a man,
but the placing is hazardous to both.

(From the poem: "An Awkward Comparison")

It's tragic that the Taliban has ravaged the same place with their own power-hungry, totalitarian interpretation of the religion which once produced a mind that embraces it with wide arms of warmth and peace and refuses to be compared with other followers of the same.

How to cure bad habits?

It is vital for us to separate groupism or communalism, which often escalates to barbarism, from the thought it is based on. It is vital then to read and reread that what Rumi sees as religion is the private association with God. It is also vital to mark the emphasis on individuality in Rumi's thought.

All the Western ideas of liberalism are based on the idea of individuality, which in turn is based on post-renaissance European thought. Asian philosophy is contrasted with its Western counterpart in the fact that it is rooted in mysticism as opposed to individuality.

Islam itself has long had a tradition of mysticism that is known as Sufism. Sufism is a sort of an inward dimension of Islam, a practice that encourages a direct, personal connection with the divine, a spiritual proximity to the omniscient that transcends the physical world and temporarily subverts immediate reality.

Sufism is the quest for the truth of love and knowledge, without necessarily always distinguishing between the two. Rumi was known as the Mevlana (Maulana) and his poetic collection Masnavi meaning "the spiritual couplets" is known as the Persian Quran. He was no doubt a mystic, a Sufi, and one who strongly endorsed the personal, for the most intimately individual is the truly spiritual.

Rumi might remain unparalleled in not just the Islamic world but also in the world of philosophy and poetry across the globe. Another thing that he will remain is dead. The Taliban, on the other hand, at least for now, looks rampant and alive.

It is now up to us, the other people who are alive, and the ones who are going to be born — not just Muslims but everyone else as well — to choose which interpretation of Islam we uphold or react to, how we read history, and what we borrow from it.

How to cure bad water? Send it back to the river.
How to cure bad habits? Send me back to you.

(From the poem: "My Worst Habit")

I think what we, as a world, need now more than ever is to be sent back to Rumi.
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