by Amal Elmohandes, Egypt
Appalled by the sexual assaults that took place in Tahrir Square, and after attending a volunteers’ meeting for Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment (OpAntiSH), an initiative formed by volunteers in response to the mob sexual assaults that started taking place in Tahrir Square and its vicinity in November 2012, I decided to volunteer in the intervention group with OpAntiSH, in preparation for the June 30, 2013 demonstrations, calling for the ousting of Mohammed Morsy and dissolution of the Muslim Brotherhood, changing my mind from my earlier decision to volunteer in the safe houses’ group. The meeting was a part of the comprehensive plan that Nazra implemented in preparation for the June 30 demonstrations, in which mob sexual assaults were greatly expected. A massive response was needed from feminist organizations and others.
Preparations also included printing flyers indicating the hot spots in which attacks take place, and distributing them to protesters in the square to avoid them, trainings conducted in First Aid skills and Listening Skills to survivors of rape and sexual assault, and liaising with private clinics for the provision of medical support to survivors. Planning also included the operation of the hotline of the Women Human Rights Defenders Program (WHRDP) and its coordination with OpAntiSH’s hotline numbers for receipt of calls of attacks. Lighting hot spots in coordination with 2 political parties and other feminist organizations took place, and some of Nazra staff members who volunteered with OpAntiSH in various tasks, including the accompaniment of survivors to private clinics and hospitals to ensure that appropriate medical support is provided, provision of psychological support, and Nazra lawyers following up on cases being reported to the police. Nazra’s Executive Director also received calls of hysterical survivors after they were assaulted.
As the date of the demonstrations approached, I grew more anxious of the sexual assaults that would take place, but focused my attention on the tasks at hand. After learning about the sexual assaults that took place on June 28th, a decision was made for OpAntish (in coordination with Nazra and other groups) to start its operations on June 29th, rather than June 30th as originally planned. In a previous intervention training session I had made a conscious decision to opt for volunteering in Tahrir Square, after expectations were made that attacks in Tahrir would be far worse than those in the vicinity of the Itihadeya presidential palace. An aspect of my role in Nazra was coordinating with private clinics for the provision of immediate medical support to survivors. I would envision the complete scenario in my head: a survivor attacked, taken to a clinic, her feelings, the terror of having a physician examine her, reeling into her private parts and administering medication. I imagined the forceps, the shots, the horror, and as my fear grew, my conviction became stronger. I imagined myself backing out at the last minute, but as some friends kept advising me to change my mind, I grew more stubborn.
I struggled somewhat with whether I should dress as advised by the core group members (a one-piece bathing suit under several layers of t-shirts, and 2 pants on top of each other), and decided to do so after all. When no assaults took place on June 29th, I felt extremely confident and grateful that I did not have to witness or intervene in an attack. When getting anxious about the next day, I quickly diverted my attention by focusing on the victory of the assault-free June 29.
As I woke up on June 30th, I felt the anxiety seeping into my stomach. I secretly wished that the intervention group would be able to save all the survivors from the horror of rape even though we were told during training sessions that we would never be able to save all the women. The application of what we had learned in the trainings would be much more violent than its simulation in a training session. As I assembled with others in preparation for our positions, a phone call was received by a core member that four women were being sexually assaulted. I renewed my faith in God, and as we were making our way through the crowds, I kept thinking of these women while staring at another volunteer in front of me, making sure that I don’t lose sight of her. Moving through the crowds, I was perplexed with the contradiction of the loving and generous spirit of the volunteers, as opposed to the roaring crowds and aggressors we would soon face.
The night was long; going up 12 stories of a building that my colleagues and I were trapped in with the survivors as the violent aggressors tried to break into the building; other women being brought in; searching with a mother for her daughter; waiting with my colleagues for a naked survivor to come through the door so we can dress her; going back into the crowds and reaching for a woman being attacked on the ground while being groped along with my colleague. The woman slipped from under the metal gate of a shop she was pressed against and we lost track of her; a child who couldn’t find his mother; being stationed to keep a look out from the window of the building for any attacks taking place… As I viewed the crowds, roaring, chanting, screaming, waving their flags, I felt disconnected. I was closely searching for any attacks taking place while the crowds below ambivalently cheered none among them aware of the women being sexually assaulted or raped in their midst. I felt a sudden overwhelming surge of disgust, for the reality of these sexual assaults on the ground was far uglier than I thought. On that day alone, 46 sexual assaults, some of which were rape had taken place, and 186 sexual assaults had taken place during the period June 28 to July 7, 2013.
Amal Elmohandes works as the Director of the Women Human Rights Defenders (WHRD) Program at Nazra for Feminist Studies. Before joining Nazra, she worked at the Bi-National Fulbright Commission in Egypt under the Community College Initiative.