Interviewed on 11/12/2012
With many women led initiatives rising up to save the women of Egypt, Tahrir Bodyguards comes along to the rescue. The group was started in a very spontaneous way. One of the leaders and instigators, herself half-Egyptian and passionate about advocating for her rights and those of the country and its citizens, was preparing one day to go to a demonstration when she found that her fear of assault was overwhelming. Furious at the idea that she should be prevented from expressing herself in an open, public space, alongside her fellow countrymen and women, the idea for Tahrir Bodyguard was born. Within days it had a large following on Twitter, which has now grown to 3000. Three weeks later and the movement rapid growth, we spoke with the founders of TB to tell us more about their positive initiative.
What does the project aim at?
In the short term, we hope to significantly reduce the incidents of sexual assault occurring in Tahrir Square and other areas where demonstrations of any orientation take place, helping to ensure the safety of the participants. We are non-political and without bias; our aim is to protect the rights and dignity of female protestors so their voices can be heard alongside those of their male counterparts. In the long term, we hope to create, along with other groups working towards a similar end, a cultural shift of greater accountability for sexual harassment through raising awareness of the problem and helping to implement effective solutions, through the police and judiciary system for example.
How often do you work on ground? Is it only on big protests and demonstrations or all sit ins?
At the moment, due to limited capacity and the fact that this is a new initiative, our focus is on large protests and demonstrations. As we grow, we hope to expand so that we have a presence at any and all events where there is a threat of sexual harassment or assault. Currently, we seek to tackle the most pressing issue, which is that many female protestors do not feel safe attending demonstrations due to the threat and the reality of sexual assault. The more support we receive and the stronger our initiative becomes, the more we will be able to expand the scope of our activities so as to have a presence at all sit ins. Here it is important to note that as a non-political organization we seek to create safer spaces for women of all backgrounds and viewpoints to have their voices heard. We are non-partisan and our aim is simply to ensure that all people are able to exercise their right to protest and speak freely without fear of sexual attack.
In your opinion, what else needs to be done in the area of tackling sexual harassment?
The key to tackling sexual harassment is in mobilizing forces to raise awareness and uniting people who are willing to take preventative action. A large number of people wish to act to stop harassment and attacks from taking place, the crucial thing is to join together; united we are strong; divided we waste valuable time and energy trying to tackle the same issues in slightly different ways.
Why do you think Tahrir is now a famous place for sexual harassment?
The reasons for high levels of sexual harassment in Egypt as a whole have been examined at length and linked to things such as patriarchy, the conservatism that leads to widespread sexual frustration especially amongst men, the fact that high levels of unemployment in the country delay marriage, compounding these levels of sexual frustration (not to mention the non-sexual frustration that comes from being unemployed and not sufficiently fulfilled and challenged professionally and personally). You could argue that what large-scale protests and demonstrations in Tahrir offer these potential assailants is anonymity. In crowds so big, it is unlikely that assailants could be caught or made responsible for their actions. For some, that may mean that anything goes. It is also possible that the high levels of emotion that accompany protests mean that people are more likely to fall prey to a mob mentality, that inhibitions are released and that for opportunists this seems like the perfect chance to act upon impulses that they would normally keep in check outside of a big crowd. The fact that so many large-scale assaults have already taken place seems to have created a domino effect; even the general public is no longer as shocked to hear of these assaults, as we were when the first ones occurred; horrifically, shockingly, they are becoming normalized. This is why we need to take action now.
It has been said that rape and assault are often motivated by a desire to assert power. One possible reason for the mass group assaults of the kind seen in Tahrir is that the perpetrators channel their feelings of frustration and anger, roused by outrage at the political situation and social injustice, and act in an animalistic way. This would be indicative of a very ugly side of human nature.
How has the revolution, in the team’s opinion, increased or decreased sexual harassment? Why?
Unfortunately it seems clear that one of the results of the revolution has been an increase in levels of sexual harassment. Here we should distinguish between sexual harassment, which has been a feature of Egyptian society for a long time, and incidents of mass sexual assault, a new and insidious phenomenon, which, to our knowledge, only started taking place in this way in Tahrir after the revolution. Many have also linked the rise in cases of sexual harassment in general to be linked to the decrease in police presence, just as there has been an increase in crime since the revolution. In both cases, opportunists wishing to perpetrate crimes of any nature may feel that with so many people focusing on significant political change, and without a strong governmental, legal and judiciary framework to penalize them, there is an opening for them to undertake criminal or immoral activity – such as theft, carjacking and sexual harassment and assault.
Tahrir Bodyguards are making efforts to establish links with other organizations, who work to combat sexual harassment, believing that their greatest strength comes through working altogether towards a shared goal.