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Abdelfattah Elsharkawi: Prevention of sexual violence in Egypt

In the early days of the revolution, Tahrir square became a global symbol of hope, opportunities and people’s power. Both women and men protested with the same demands. Abelfattah, born and raised in Cairo, 26 years old, and co-founder and director of the Imprint Movement, was among the huge crowd occupying the square. This is his story.

29 January 2011

Abdelfattah went for the very first time to Tahrir to take part in the protests. He didn’t just demand Mubarak to leave; the main reason he went was to help out other protesters and give first aid. That night he went back home to look after his mother.

As the weeks passed, the number of protesters grew – all expressing one main demand: Mubarak must resign. By the time Mubarak finally did step down on February 11, a huge camp had sprung up in Tahrir square with hundreds of thousands of people.

11 February 2011

Abdelfattah arrived at Tahrir late. The first thing he did after he heard the news of Mubarak’s resignation was call his mother, who said she would understand if he stayed there that night. That was his first night out in Tahrir square during the revolution.

It didn’t take long before the atmosphere of hope in Tahrir square turned grim, though. Repressive forces pushed back the women who had stepped forward as citizens, subjecting them to harassment, sexual assault, and even gang rape. The heartland of Egypt’s 2011 revolution, which had started as a place of celebration, was quickly turning into a ground zero for sexual violence.

4 June 2012

After Nihal Zaghloul was sexually harassed while protesting in Tahrir, and witnessed the rape of one of her friends, she wrote a blog post that deeply moved the many young men and women who read it.  Abdelfattah was one of them.

I know that many will not like that I wrote this about Tahrir square thinking I am trying to vandalize the image of the Egyptian revolution. This is not my intention. I have participated in almost all the battles and marches since Jan 28, 2011 but sexual harassment in Egypt is growing and growing and we need to address it. We ignored it for too long and it is becoming a monster that is eating us all. I feel hate towards those men who molested us. I can’t smile in the face of anyone that I don’t know anymore. Hell I can’t smile the way I used to.

The evening he read Nihal’s blog, Abdelfattah immediately replied via Twitter that he would do all in his power to prevent this from happening again. Together with a friend, he set up a Facebook event, ‘Securing Tahrir’, calling for volunteers to form patrols to prevent and counter sexual harassment in Tahrir. When Nihal heard about this, she asked the patrols to protect the campaign she planned to set up against sexual violence in Tahrir the next day.

8 June 2012

When the campaigners gathered to start their march, the patrols joined them as agreed. Suddenly, a man in the crowd attacked a young woman who was filming the march. She beat the harasser, but he fought back and within a split second a brutal fight broke out that went on for forty-five minutes. The patrols were outnumbered and unable to stop the fight. The girls were abused in every way imaginable. This was the first time Abdelfattah had witnessed anything like this. What had started as a campaign against sexual violence ended in frenzy of sexual violence. It wasn’t until Abdelfattah arrived home that night and took a shower that he started to feel the pain of the bruises and wounds on his own body. Never had he been so badly beaten before. He sat down and tried to comprehend how this possibly could have happened.

Imprint: a new type of social activism

A few days later, Nihal and Abdelfattah met to discuss what they could do to prevent terrible scenes of mass sexual assault like the one they witnessed. While exploring the idea of deploying patrols on a more regular basis, the idea of Imprint was born. Together they founded ‘Imprint’, a movement that ever since has pioneered a new type of social activism: civic patrols conducted by male volunteers in public places to prevent sexual harassment, mass sexual assault and rape. They move alongside awareness groups and campaigns in the spaces that are most critical to women’s freedom of movement through the city: the subways and major squares. Abdelfattah designed the formations and methods of the civic patrols and personally trains all of the volunteers before each deployment. He is now the general director of Imprint. Abdelfattah says the idea behind the patrols is not only to prevent and react to sexual harassment, but also to operate at a more structural level:

We don’t want to provoke violence, but we need to work in a structural way, on the level of laws and legal institutions that affect these issues. The model is to activate the law; a law that is corrupt. Police officers who are sometimes harassers themselves. A system of patriarchy and hierarchy where people choose themselves who to help based on their own judgment. So that is quite a challenge.

Male participation in women’s rights campaigns

Men feature as founders, members and volunteers in the movement. Like Abdelfattah, most of them join out of a sense of outrage over what female members of their family and friends are exposed to in public:

Before this incident I never thought about doing what I do now, or any other form of social work. This was the incident that started everything. I was so angry that I couldn’t fulfill what I promised, and then it developed by empathy, by learning, by listening, by seeing what actually happens to people, experiencing what they experience.

He describes the unique quality of the patrols and intervention teams as:

Whether it’s patrols or the intervention teams, I think the unique quality is that they are all men, from different background, going out risking their lives to stand up for a cause for women and to stop sexual violence. This is very unique.

When it comes to his position as a man working for the cause of women, the difference in gender is less prominent:

I actually don’t see the distinction. I consider it as a human cause, because women’s rights are human rights. Such injustice and sexual violence against anyone can not be accepted.

Political participation

In Egypt’s current unsettled economic and security climate, the scale and severity of sexual harassment has only increased. According to surveys conducted by the National Council for Women and the National Council for Childhood and Motherhood, 99.3 percent of women responded that they have been subjected to some form of unwelcome sexual advance. More than 250 cases of mass sexual assaults have been documented from November 2012 to January 2014.

Abdelfattah believes that women’s participation in politics and the economy is extremely important, but he also recognizes how important is that society accept women’s rights enshrined in laws first. So Abdelfattah works simultaneously on civic engagement and political change:

For women to be politically involved in Egypt, to be decision makers, they need essentially to be safe to go to the elections, to their work without the fear of being attacked or sexually assaulted in the streets or even at home. I think safety is a necessity for any person to function and be productive in a society.

Ignorance

As Abdelfattah says, gender based violence is still an immense taboo in Egyptian society:

To talk about gender based violence in Egypt is like having discussions about religion. There is just one truth, and in the case of gender based violence: the truth is that it does not exist.

More than four years after the revolution, its concrete achievements have largely been overturned and sexual violence has become even more prevalent in Egyptian society than before. However, activists like Abdelfattah have not stopped speaking out:

I have seen things I should not have seen and these things should not have happened to these people. It is not right and people get away with it. People stay damaged for a long time. Some never recover. And the worst thing is the community not understanding it. They just look the other way. We invite them to participate in stopping something that is this hideous and hidden. We are putting these women’s experiences right in front of them, loud and clear, so they cannot ignore the problem.

If there is one characteristic that describes Abdelfattah best, it’s ‘perseverance’. Despite the severe beating he experienced himself, the mass sexual assaults he witnessed, police abuse, the ignorance of many Egyptian citizens and the culture of impunity that surrounds sexual violence, Abdelfattah just won’t give up. In fact, these obstacles make him even more determined than ever to continue the fight against sexual violence in his country. Through civic patrols alongside campaigns, he is seeking to make Egyptian society as a whole understand the deep and lasting trauma sexual violence brings to its victims, their friends and families and Egyptian society as a whole.