By Mona Eltahawy
The Jerusalem Report
Oct. 28, 2010
A WOMAN, COVERED head-to-toe in a black veil, appeared on Egyptian television this summer to drop a bombshell: two policemen, she said, had raped her.
It’s unclear if she normally wears the niqab, the face veil, or if it served to protect her anonymity. But there was no doubt that her allegation served as a sledgehammer to strike two of Egypt’s sorest spots of late: sexual assault and police brutality.
The latter has been the subject of outcry and unprecedented protest since Khaled Said, a young businessman, died on June 6 from what his family and witnesses say was a police beating. Two plainclothes police officers went on trial on July 27, charged with illegal arrest and excessive force.
Standing up to the police in a country that’s been under emergency law for 29 years comes with considerable risk. Said’s family says he was targeted after posting an online video allegedly showing police sharing the profit of a drug bust.
Reporting rape anywhere is difficult but in Egypt’s conservative culture, women keep quiet rather than risk arousing blame or humiliation, and at times rape again at a police station. In some cases, they risk being killed by a relative to rid the family of shame.
“I am sacrificing my reputation by telling the story... to protect every girl, every woman who may trust a police van. I tell them now, if you see a police van, you must be very careful,” she said. “I want the officials to know what policemen do to the people. Even now, I still can’t believe or comprehend that these were policemen.”
Her lawyer told the TV station a police investigation had recognized that the rape took place but didn’t identify the attackers as policemen. It’s unclear how her case has proceeded. Assailants in rape cases face sentences ranging from three years to life imprisonment. Marital rape is not illegal in Egypt.
Some 20,000 rapes are reported in Egypt each year, according to a state-run research center. But that figure is said to represent just 10 percent of the total number of victims. When I was a reporter in Cairo, psychiatrists were my source for information on sexual assaults. They are the ones rape survivors went to for help to cope.
Sexual assaults have been surfacing for a while, often with a background of police ineptitude or compliance. In 2005, hundreds of Egyptians staged an angry protest against the sexual harassment and assault of female activists and reporters by suspected government supporters. The women said police and security forces stood by, some shouting orders during the assaults.
Sexual assaults in downtown Cairo during a religious festival in 2006 forced Egypt to confront the consequences of its unchecked sexual harassment. Women said police did nothing as men tore off their clothes and headscarves, groping them and in some cases trying to rape them during the festival. The Interior Ministry denied the assaults even took place.
Bloggers at the scene posted photographs and videos of the assaults, pushing them onto the headlines and forcing a long-overdue reckoning. A number of draft laws dealing with sexual harassment are under consideration by Parliament but there is still nothing on Egypt’s statute books that specifically prohibits street harassment.
Later this year, a volunteer-run private venture, HarassMap, will be launched that will allow women to report street sexual harassment by sending an SMS to a centralized computer. They will receive a reply offering support and practical advice, and the reports will be used to build up a detailed and publicly available map of harassment hot spots that activists hope will shame authorities into taking greater action.
Attitudes toward rape across the Arab world generally are abysmal. The stigma – and often the law – is much harsher on the woman than on the rapist.
Two cases notorious for their miscarriage of justice clearly illustrate why most women who are raped keep quiet. In 2007, a Saudi woman who reported being gang-raped was sentenced to 200 lashes and imprisonment for being alone with a man. After an international outcry, the Saudi king pardoned her.
In June, a court in Abu Dhabi sentenced an 18-year-old Emirati woman to a year in prison for illicit sex after she reported that six men had gang-raped her. The court said that by agreeing to go for a drive with a male friend, a 19-year-old military police officer, she had consented to having sex with him.
The woman in niqab on Egyptian television understood the magnitude of what she was doing. Her tearful TV segment, which has gone viral on YouTube, stands to become as iconic as the harrowing footage in 2006 of policemen sodomizing bus driver Emad Kabir with a stick. Two bloggers posted that footage and two of the policemen were sentenced to three years in jail. Kabir’s testimony helped break the taboo around male rape in police custody.
The woman in niqab is helping break a taboo too, but neither she nor Egypt is ready for her to do so as publicly as Kabir, whose name we know and whose face was clearly visible as he screamed in pain in the footage of his rape.
All we know of the woman in niqab is that she is a grandmother.
She told that to the police she accuses of raping her as she pleaded with them to stop.