President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi visited the survivor of a sexual assault in military hospital on Wednesday, where she is recovering from a recent attack that took place in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. The visit has drawn criticism from some women’s rights activists.
State television showed a grey-suited Sisi accompanied by a number of military officers holding a bouquet of red flowers that he handed to the survivor apologizing to her and telling her: “We’ll get you your rights.”
Sisi has launched a national campaign to combat sexual harassment after at least nine incidents of mob sexual assaults took place in Tahrir Square between June 3 and 8, during celebrations marking Sisi’s victory in the presidential elections and his swearing-in ceremony.
Most media outlets seemed supportive of Sisi’s efforts. Headlines in mainstream Egyptian newspapers were dominated by stories of Sisi’s campaign to end sexual harassment on Wednesday morning. The television host Maha Bahanssy, who made light of recent incidents of mob sexual assaults live on air, was temporarily suspended from her job at the pro-Sisi Tahrir TV channel, state-run website Ahram Gate reported.
Sisi has called on Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb to form a ministerial committee with participation from Al-Azhar, the highest Sunni Muslim religious authority in the country, as well as the church, to understand the reasons for the spread of sexual harassment and to specify a national strategy to confront it, privately owned daily newspaper reported Al-Masry Al-Youm reported on its website Wednesday.
He has also instructed the Ministry of Interior, in charge of Egypt’s police force, to take all necessary measures to combat sexual harassment, which a presidential statement issued Tuesday said is “an unacceptable form of conduct, alien to the best principles of Egyptian culture.”
A 2013 United Nations study found that nine out of 10 Egyptian women have experienced some form of sexual assault, ranging from minor harassment to rape.
Some women’s rights activists were skeptical about the visit.
Mariam Kirollos, co-founder of the volunteer group Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment/Assault Initiative, formed in 2012 to prevent and intervene in cases of mob sexual assaults during protests in Tahrir Square, wrote on her Twitter account: “I would really like to know if the survivor’s consent was taken for this outrageous propaganda.”
She added: “I refuse the use of our bodies for propaganda. The Egyptian state has condoned and supervised sexual violence for years.”
Sisi came under criticism in 2011 after a meeting with human rights group Amnesty International, in which he defended the military’s use of virginity testing on female detainees, but also promised the military would no longer carry out the forced tests.
He was then head of Egypt’s military intelligence and said that the tests had been carried out on female detainees in March 2011 to “protect” the military against possible allegations of rape.
Amnesty said: “Subjecting women to such degrading procedures hoping to show that they were not raped in detention makes no sense, and was nothing less than torture.”
When military officers violently cleared Tahrir Square on March 9, 2011, the day after International Women’s Day, 17 women were detained, beaten, prodded with electric shock batons, subjected to strip searches, forced to submit to “virginity tests” and threatened with prostitution charges, Amnesty said at the time.
Mona Eltahawy, a journalist and vocal Egyptian American advocate of women’s rights in the Arab world, said on her Twitter account today: “When Sisi & #Egyptian military issue clear apology for “VirginityTests,” I’ll take his apology to Tahrir survivor seriously.”
In November 2011, Eltahawy was arrested while covering protests in Tahrir Square and accused the police of physically and sexually assaulting her while in custody.
Egypt’s sexual harassment epidemic and known cases of mob sexual assaults in public places has been a growing problem since 2005.
In 2005, four women were beaten, sexually assaulted and had their clothes ripped off by plain-clothed policemen during a protest calling for a boycott of a referendum called by Hosni Mubarak on amendments to the Constitution. The day is known by rights groups as “Black Wednesday.”
The problem has grown worse amid a security vacuum following the 2011 uprising and as protests in public squares have grown larger and more frequent. The non-governmental organization Nazra Center for Feminist Studies said in a Tuesday statement, undersigned by 25 rights groups, that there have been more than 500 sexual violence survivors between February 2011 and January 2014.
Nazra’s statement also criticized a recent law issued by former interim President Adly Mansour that made changes to the penal code to define sexual harassment as a crime. Before this, Egypt did not have a law defining sexual harassment. It said the new changes to the law “were not enough to hold the perpetrators of these crimes accountable.”
Women have been particularly vocal supporters of Sisi, since he led the overthrow of former President Mohamed Morsi in July, after a mass wave of protests calling on him to resign. And Sisi has paid homage and praised Egyptian women’s role in society.
H. A. Hellyer, nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington DC and the Royal United Services Institute in London, told Mada Masr: “Even in the run up to Sisi’s presidential campaign, the Egyptian press and parts of the Egyptian political elite were promoting the notion that Sisi is particularly endearing to the women of the Egyptian public.”
“Focusing on this almost endemic problem of sexual violence, in such a high profile manner, even going to the hospital itself, will only build on that notion that Sisi is particularly concerned about the lot of Egyptian women — and we can expect the Egyptian press to play it up quite significantly in the days to come and beyond,” he added.