Cairo's Tahrir Square, once the staging ground for the massive uprising that ousted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, is quickly becoming notorious for something very different: an organized campaign of sexual assaults, activists say.
The past year has seen an increase in attacks against women at demonstrations, but recently they have been particularly rampant – and, according to witnesses and activists, they have been following similar patterns.
On the two-year anniversary of the revolution on Jan. 25, at least 19 women were sexually assaulted in and around Tahrir Square in one night, some with knives, activists said. Dozens more cases have been reported in the two months since.
“The message to women is, ‘You should stay at home, you should stop protesting, you should feel stigmatized,’” said Hania Moheeb, an Egyptian journalist who was herself assaulted in the square that night.
Moheeb, who writes for two English-language magazines and for a documentary program on Nile TV International, recently met female activists from around the Middle East at a conference in New York on women’s rights since the Arab Spring uprising. She described that at one point that night, she was certain she would die.
Moheeb, 42, was trying to pass through the square when two men grabbed her from a group of women who had formed a circle around her, apparently to protect her.
“In a few seconds, tens of hands were all over my body, under my clothes, ripping … off my clothes and violating each inch of my body,” she said.
The men were “continuously giving the impression that they were helping out while they were the same perpetrators and attackers,” she added.
They dragged her to the outer edges of the square where another group of men came forward, saying they would help and take her to an ambulance, Moheeb said. But they stopped her as she tried to pull her clothes back on, carrying her half-naked to the ambulance.
“What I know for a fact is that my body was being violated up until the last second before I was put in the ambulance,” she said.
Over the days following her attack, Moheeb heard from other women who were also assaulted on the same night, at the same place and in the same way – using the same techniques down to the very last detail.
Some activists believe it is an organized tactic aimed at silencing opponents of the Egyptian government, but there has been no evidence to prove that is the case, Moheeb said. No single group has been charged in connection with the assaults as of yet.
Nonetheless, Moheeb fears there will be retribution for her telling her story and worries for her husband and parents. Although she is pursuing justice through the courts, she says she holds out very little hope that anything will be done.
“The justice I need,” Moheeb said, “is the justice [for] the Egyptian people. The success of the revolution will be success for them.”