Last Wednesday, the world watched an increasingly familiar scene: Egyptian crowds gathering in Tahrir Square to demand social change. Once the army announced it had ousted President Mohamed Morsi, these same streets became host to victory celebrations for some, and violent conflict for others. For over ninety-one women who were sexually assaulted that night, Tahrir Square became what Egyptian women’s rights activist. Soraya Bahgat described as “a circle of hell.”
In many ways, the attack against these women is part of a global rape culture in which women’s bodies are used as tools of war and targets during social unrest. During the Egyptian Revolution of 2011, for example, it was widely documented that the Mubarak regime paid men to systematically sexually assault women during the demonstrations.
But this recent wave of rape is part of another frightening reality: women’s bodies are also casualties of “freedom.”
In an e-mail, Rebecca Chiao, the co-founder of HarrassMap Egypt, a group that rescues women being sexually assaulted by mobs in the recent protests, wrote, “Whoever is at fault for paying thugs, no political actors have made a serious effort to punish or prevent mob harassment/assault/rape.”
Régine Jean-Charles, author of Conflict Bodies: The Politics of Rape Representation in the Francophone Imaginary, told me in a phone interview that this insidious response is “not new” but consistent with “a global pattern of social movements not including ending gender-violence in their liberatory visions.”
Even in our own Occupy Wall Street movement, women were subject to sexual assaults and misogynist jokes.
Real social change must include eradicating rape culture. Until then, as women continue to be on the frontlines of protests—be it in New York City or Cairo—with our political brethren, our bodies, our rights and ultimately our lives remain on freedom’s sidelines.