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With Tasers and Placards the Women of Egypt Are Fighting Back

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women of egypt are fighting back against sexism
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  20 | NEW STATESMAN | 15-21 FEBRUARY 2013 like someone beats you and every time youwake up they beat you again. It’s not onlysexual harassment – they beat you, pull yourhair, tell you awful words, call you a badwoman, call you a prostitute.”As the march sets off, the women holdknives high in the air, along with more novelweapons –sticks, wooden spoons, vegetablepeelers, meat tenderisers – as if they’dmarched en masse out of the kitchens of Cairo ready to tenderise the hell out of thispatriarchal police state.Egypt has tolerated a culture of misogynyfor many generations. In the past year, how-ever, there has been a change in mood. Women from all walks of life are afraid to go out in the street at all, whether they’remarching to bring down the government orpopping to the shop for a pint of milk. EvenTahrir Square, the symbolic political heart of the nation, has become all but impassable toany woman without a hefty male escort.One of the groups fighting back is Op -AntiSH –pronounced “Oppantish” andstanding for Operation Anti-Sexual Harass-ment –a gang of volunteers, some of themmen and many of them women who have been raped and assaulted. OpAntiSH physi-cally stops assaults in Tahrir Square and the surrounding areas, using Tasers, spraypaint, fists, force, sticks, anything they canput their hands on to protect women from“mob attacks”. They divide into task-teamswith specific jobs: some to summon rescuersto the scene of an assault, some to grab the Cairo ‘‘The youth will liberate Egypt!” A girl in asky-blue headscarf is yelling and 300 womenshout the words back at her outside theSayyida Zeinab Mosque in central Cairo. Be-hind the gates of the mosque, men in longrobes stare at the growing crowd, growlinginsults at anyone who comes close, but alsocurious. “These men, they’ve been brain-washed,” says Fawzie, 68, a retired engineer.“I am angry, devastated. I went several timesto Tahrir Square, doing my best to help.“They want women to stay at home. Iwant to see liberty.”For the women of Egypt, freedom fromsexist oppression and freedom from state repression are part of the same battle. It isnow dangerous for women and girls to go out alone without anticipating sexual and physi-cal assault from mobs of men, from armedpolice, or both. The story being told by most of the western press is that Egypt’s revolu-tion has been “spoiled” or “tainted” by thispandemic of violent misogyny –but at street level, something else is going on. The ques-tion is: whose revolution is this, anyway?Before we came to the women’s march, my friends and I had been told to wear heavy belts, baggy trousers and several layers, tomake it as difficult as possible for attackers toshove their hands inside our clothes.Rana and Gina, young students who have been part of the revolution since 2011 andhave experienced sexual harassment, areholding up placards demanding that passers- by acknowledge sexism. “They don’t want us in the revolution. But we are here andnone can push us away by raping us, by mak-ing women afraid to go out of their homes,”Rana says. “We are fed up. The police don’t listen to us. [They say] you are wearing un-suitable clothes, you deserve to be harassed. We are here to say we are not afraid.”Gina is smaller, with bright, dyed-red hair poking out from under her hoodie, hervoice hoarse with rage as she describes themultiple sexual assaults she has suffered.“It’s like someone takes your soul,” she says.“You feel that you want to kill yourself. It’svictim and take her to safety, some to distrib-ute the contents of emergency packs contain-ing spare clothes, water and blankets. It’s alldown to them, because the police are farmore concerned with attacking protestersthan protecting women.In a flat above Tahrir Square after Fridayprayers, activists with OpAntiSH organiseinto teams to head down to the protest lines.“The significant shift is in how women seethe issue,” says Reem Labib, an OpAntiSHmember. “We’ve been violated and we willnot be silenced. I’ve never seen it like this  before. There’s always been this barrier of shame and fear.”“We believe that a big part of this mob isorganised –sexual assault has always beenone of the means used by the state to intimi-date women. But even so, it’s still relying onthe deeper problem in society,” says Tarsi, an OpAntiSH spokesperson whose flat weare in. She makes tea for the shell-shockedwomen and men pulling on team T-shirts togo out and risk their lives again in the squarewhose name means freedom. These sevenfriends, students and charity workers in jeansare fighting a real war –a war for the soul of their revolution, as well as for the lives of women in the streets of Cairo.Egypt is not the only country wherewomen are bearing the brunt of social frus-tration and public anger. But the women of Egypt and their allies have understood what the rest of the world has failed so far to grasp– that meaningful social progress cannot exclude women. Western journalists usingthe sex assault pandemic to imply that Egypt somehow isn’t ready for regime change, toimply that Egyptian men are out of control,have fundamentally misunderstood what thisrevolution is, and what it can be. “The question is, whose revolution?” saysAmr Gharbeia, one of OpAntiSH’s manyyoung male volunteers. “For conservatives,the revolution has been victorious –it hasput them in power. For some people, it stopsat just a bit more freedom. But, for some, therevolution has to go further –it has to includefreedom for women.”  l     D    A    N    M    U    R    R    E    L    L Laurie Penny Inthe Red  WithTasersandplacards, thewomenofEgyptarefightingbackagainstsexism “I mean, I can’t always be as funny as my tweets”  Copyright of New Statesman is the property of New Statesman Ltd. and its content may not be copied oremailed to multiple sites or posted to a listserv without the copyright holder's express written permission.However, users may print, download, or email articles for individual use.
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