Sara is an activist in the Egyptian group Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment (OpAntiSH). She was interviewed by Estelle Cooch and will be speaking at rs21’s International Women’s Day event on 12 March in London.
What is OpAntiSH and how was it formed?
OpAntiSH (Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment) was formed on 30 November 2012. It was formed as a reaction to the sexual violence and harassment that was present in Egypt before and after the revolution. There was this tendency to idealize the “18 days” of the revolution after the “Day of Rage” (25 January 2011), but in reality they were very intense times. As part of the response of the ruling regime we saw mob assaults emerge when groups of more than 500 men would form a circle around a woman and attack them.
It was after a mob assault on a couple of my friends, who were stripped and dragged through Cairo, eventually being raped with sharp objects, that led me to conclude that we had to do something to organise against this. I spoke to a couple of activist friends and we eventually found out about a meeting where OpAntiSH was set up.
Who is involved in OpAntiSH and how does it organise?
The really scary thing about the mob assaults is how systematic and organised they seem. You end up with this sense that it could happen to you at any time. One of our greatest weaknesses in Cairo is that the number of people involved varies so much. We have had 150 volunteers on some days, and on others we have 20, so we have had to try to be as systematic and organised as those carrying out the attacks in the first place.
We set up three groups- the first was an awareness group. People would be based in Tahrir Square in the morning and afternoon letting people know if there were any patterns to the harassments and the hotlines they could call to get in touch if they found themselves in trouble.
The second group were the safety group and the third was the intervention group. The safety group and intervention group work closely together to stop the assaults as they are happening. The intervention group initially makes a cordon around the mob to try to get in and get the woman or girl out. The role of the safety group is then to bring first aid and take the woman to the hospital.
Nevertheless we’ve had to be really flexible. We hadn’t done anything like this before, we haven’t had any training, so we have to think on our feet and be prepared to adapt to the situation.
Are men involved in OpAntiSH?
Men are involved in, and support, OpAntiSH, but we have had many debates and discussions to get to this point. When we began organising the intervention group, of which I was a part, we lost the support of the Ultras (the football team) because we wanted women to participate. The Ultras insisted that we exclude them because it was too dangerous and they didn’t want to feel as if they were having to “protect” the women in OpAntiSH, as well as the woman being assaulted.
We put a hard argument for women to be involved. We were risking our safety (and lives!), but didn’t think that only allowing men to do the physical interventions would help. Also our involvement made the woman at the centre of the attack more comfortable. In a traumatised state how is she meant to know that the man from OpAntiSH isn’t going to harass her? If women are at the forefront of the revolution, they have to be at the forefront of fighting the assaults.
How did the revolution change women’s views of themselves?
The revolution has achieved some things, but much remains in flux. It is, of course, an ongoing process. But when it comes to women’s oppression the single biggest difference, I think, is the way women will no longer put up with victim blaming. During the revolution women made a point of saying “I won’t be blamed anymore”. It didn’t matter if they were face-veiled or not, they suddenly said “no longer are we putting up with this”. The revolution forced me to challenge some of my preconceptions about fully veiled women, many of whom I saw on the streets chanting against the policies of the Muslim Brotherhood.
One of the more famous events that radicalised us was the attack on the “blue bra woman”. In revolutionary times the movement goes through periods of rise and fall. It was this event that led to some of the biggest marches by women on the street against the policies of SCAF.
Egypt celebrates its own National Women’s Day on 16 March. Protests on this day are very difficult and often face harassment, but women continue to demonstrate. There was a “cycling protest” recently and although it might sound trivial there have been protests where women wear dresses to show that the state shouldn’t dictate what clothes we wear.
How have campaigns around sexual harassment fed into other campaigns in the revolution?
They feed in constantly! Women’s rights are totally interlinked to everything else during a revolution. An activist involved in OpAntiSH is also involved in the campaign against military trials, revolutionary disappearances, torture, or active in her trade union organising strikes. Look at the revolution in the first place – men and women marched hand in hand under the slogan, “bread, freedom and social justice”. If we don’t have equal opportunities for women then we don’t have social justice. Think of Mona Mina, one of the former board members of the Doctor’s union (one of the most radical). Her daughter is very active in the feminist movement.
There are always some people who say “wait – we will deal with women’s rights after the revolution”, but we know that it isn’t less important, it has to be a priority in everything we do.