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Activists say harassment of women in Egypt has reached endemic levels.
CAIRO — Egypt's police arrested half a dozen men for sexually assaulting women during celebrations for the inauguration of Egypt’s newly-elected president Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, as public outrage mounted over an online video appearing to show a sexually assaulted young woman in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.
In a shaky video circulating on social media, police are shown struggling to usher out the woman, her body bloodied and completely naked, from a crowd in the country’s iconic square where fireworks erupted and horns sounded as thousands of supporters of the newly elected president celebrated.
Egypt’s Interior Ministry said in a statement that police had on Monday arrested seven men ranging in age from 15 to 49 for "harassing several girls.” The detentions followed a decree last week that for the first time that defined and criminalized sexual harassment. Under the new law, harassers face five months to six years in jail, as well as fines of up to 5,000 Egyptian pounds, or about $714.
No further details were given in relation to the apparent attack behind the video, but officials speaking on the condition of anonymity told the Associated Press that a 19-year-old female student had been hospitalized.
Activists were further enraged after another video began circulation online in which a correspondent reporting from Tahrir told Maha Bahnassi, a female anchor on a private Egyptian television station, that isolated incidents of sexual harassment had occurred during celebrations.
“Well, [the harassers] are happy!” Bahnassi laughed in response.
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“If she’s brushing it off, then this means women’s bodies are fair game when Egyptian men are happy? They can just assault our bodies?” said Mona Eltahawy, an Egyptian writer and women’s rights activists who was sexually assaulted in November 2011 during clashes between protesters and security forces on Cairo’s Mohammed Mahmoud street, just off Tahrir Square.
Mob sexual assaults have soared following the country’s 2011 revolution and activists say harassment has reached endemic levels. In a 2013 United Nations study, nine out of ten Egyptian women said they had experienced some form of sexual harassment, ranging from minor harassment to rape.
Azza Kamel, an activist with “I Saw Harassment,” a group working to combat sexual harassment in Egypt, said her group had documented at least five cases of sexual assault in Tahrir Square Sunday night. Kamel said members of her group had also witnessed the attack on the 19-year-old student, but said she did not know who was behind the attacks.
Many activists feared the regression of women’s rights under former Islamist president Mohammed Morsi, and pro-Sisi state and private media has sought to highlight the new president’s female support base, depicting him as a president for Egyptian women. Television and newspapers often show large groups of female supporters of Sisi kissing photos of the former military strongman and professing their love.
Nevertheless, in 2011, then head of Egypt’s military intelligence, Sisi defended the use of so-called “virginity tests” on female protesters, which activists say amounts to rape. In recent months, new allegations that security forces are once again using the tactic have emerged and accusations of sexual harassment at the hands of the country’s security forces have also continued.
“A culture of impunity has been running rampant the past three years, hospitals are not equipped with rape kits, the Ministry of Interior is committing these crimes themselves against women in public spaces,” said Amal al-Mohandes of Nazra for Feminist Studies, who said the sexual harassment law alone will not end the problem and a more comprehensive approach is needed.
“Without the implementation of a national strategy, without changing people’s minds, the crimes are going to continue, just like they did last night,” she said.
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