Reclaiming the Streets for Women’s Dignity: Effective Initiatives in the Struggle against Gender-Based Violence in between Egypt’s Two Revolutions

Publication Author: 
Mariz Tadros, IDS
January 2014
Tadors Reclaiming the Streets.pdf396.13 KB
Executive summary
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This paper is about the struggle to combat gender-based violence in public space in Egypt through the sustained collective action of vigilante groups who organically formed to respond to the increasing encroachment on women in public space from 2011 onwards. The study examines the emergence of a distinct form of collective action (informal youth-led activism aimed at addressing sexual violence in public space) at a very distinct historical juncture in the country’s history: the phase after the ousting of President Mubarak in February 2011 through what became known as the 25th of January Revolution and up to the ousting of President Morsi in what became controversially known as the 30th of June Revolution of 2013.

In a context of lax security and the collapse of law and order (which already had inherent weaknesses during Mubarak’s era), the sudden wide circulation of weapons, women reported a dramatic increase in their vulnerability and exposure to sexual violence in public space. One study released in 2013 showed that over 99 per cent of Egyptian women have experienced sexual harassment, a third of whom stated they were raped, gender-based violence in public spaces. Between 2012 and 2013 sexual violence in public space emerged as one of the two main gender issues that drove social activism in Egypt (the other being the drafting of the constitution).
This study distinguishes between politically and socially motivated sexual violence against women in public space. While it acknowledges that both are driven by common structural causes (hegemonic masculinity, lax security, etc.), it nevertheless argues that the policy implications for holding accountable the perpetrators and for awareness-raising are different. The forms of collective action that emerged to counter the rise in sexual violence in public space recognised the need to counter both kinds of sexual violence. Their emergence must be understood against the backdrop of Egypt experiencing one of the highest levels of citizen engagement in street activism experienced in a century. Their survival and sustainability is dependent on a number of structural and agential factors, which are discussed at length in the report.
Through a process of broad-based consultation on what constitutes effective interventions and which initiatives meet this criteria, three cases representing different models of effective interventions were selected: Shoft Taharosh, Bassma and Opantish. An appreciative inquiry approach was adapted to understand what enabled and constrained their efforts to elicit positive social change in norms and practices associated with gender-based violence. Bassma has distinguished itself by its highly regimented taskforce that works on two levels: rescue operations and awareness-raising campaigns. Its work with the security forces has also a marker of its credible reputation. Shoft Taharosh is a successful model of collective action across different initiatives, and which have capitalised on the diversity of skills and resources available within the different groups that it brings together in order to initiate awareness-raising campaigns, rescue operations and engage in policy influence. Opantish is a distinct example of an initiative that emerged to respond to a very specific phenomenon witnessed in protest spaces: women who become the targets of collective/gang forms of sexual violence. Bringing together virtually all the active informal youth-led actors involved in combating sexual assault, it has orchestrated rescue operations on a large scale.
Despite differences in political orientation, strategies of engagement and relationship with the government, what binds initiatives such as Bassma, Shoft Taharosh and Opantish and the many other iniatives that have engaged in street politics (at least at the level of the founders and organisers) is their belief in the unconditional right of women to bodily integrity irrespective of where they are, who they are with and how they are dressed.
Some of the indicators of their success include: high levels of volunteer recruitment, broad-based community endorsement, recognition by the local and international media of these actors as authoritative sources of knowledge on the incidents of gender-based violence in public space, and the rescue of women who are targets of assault.
The report shows in detail how men’s involvement in gender-based violence work, completely unconventional in the case of Egypt, de-ghettoised women’s issues and helped build a constituency for gender justice. The report also highlights the role of collective action, as opposed to simply a critical mass of men, in enabling effective interventions on the part of these three initiatives. Finally, the report argues that these initiatives in conjunction with others may develop into a new movement of major influence and political weight, provided a number of agential and structural factors allow this.