On 26 October 2014, the verdict of the case known as the Ittihadia Presidential Palace was issued at the Police Institute near Tora, where the seven women human rights defenders along with other protesters were sentenced to 3 years’ imprisonment, in addition to 3 years’ monitoring and a fine of EGP 10,000 (USD 1398.60).
The seven women human rights defenders arrested amongst others included Ms. Sanaa Seif, Ms. Yara Sallam, Ms. Hanan Mustafa Mohamed, Ms. Salwa Mihriz, Ms. Samar Ibrahim, Ms. Nahid Sherif (known as Nahid Bebo) and Ms. Fikreya Mohamed (known as Rania El-Sheikh). They were arrested on 21 June 2014 along with others for protesting peacefully against the Protest and Public Assembly Law.
Ms. Sanaa Seif and the other women human rights defenders are currently being held in Qanater women’s prison. On 28 August 2014, Ms. Sanaa Seif decided to begin an open hunger strike where she is taking water only, to protest against the Protest and Public Assembly Law, which has led to the continuation of her arbitrary arrest and others. The decision to begin a hunger strike came amidst the passing away of her father, human rights defender Mr. Ahmed Seif El-Islam, and continued imprisonment of her brother, human rights defender Mr. Alaa Abd El-Fattah, who also began an open hunger strike on 18 August 2014. She is in a very weak condition.
Nazra for Feminist Studies finds this verdict both horrifying and shocking, particularly in the midst of the absence of incriminating evidence. Nazra for Feminist Studies urges the Egyptian authorities to immediately and unconditionally release the aforementioned women human rights defenders and drop all charges directed at them stemming from the legitimate exercise of the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. It also urges the Egyptian authorities to take all measures to guarantee the physical and psychological integrity and security of all seven women human rights defenders.
It was revealed this week that Lara Logan, an high profile SA-born journalist working for the US broadcasting company, CBS, was subjected to a ‘brutal and sustained sexual assault’ and beating whilst covering the protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. She found herself separated from her crew and was set upon by a mob of up to 200 men, in an attack which lasted almost half an hour but undoubtedly felt much longer. She was eventually rescued by a group of Egyptian women and soldiers and was flown back to the US where she was hospitalised. She has since been discharged and is now recovering at home in Washington with her family: her husband and her two year-old son.
What is almost as shocking (but perhaps, sadly, not surprising) about Lara Logan’s terrifying experience is the response that has emerged from the global journalistic community. Disturbingly, some of her American peers have come under fire for remarks that turn the blame for the attack on Logan herself, and paint her as an attention seeking, risk-taking ‘war-mongerer’.
Nir Rosen, a high profile freelance war journalist, resigned from his New York University fellowship this week as a consequence of the ‘jokes’ he made regarding Logan’s attack on Twitter. These comments included saying that Logan ‘was probably just groped like thousands of other women’ and claimed that she simply wanted to ‘outdo’ Anderson Cooper, a male journalist that had been punched and kicked by another mob previously. After a backlash, Rosen provided a half-hearted apology, saying: ‘Ah f*** it, I apologize for being insensitive, it’s always wrong, that’s obvious, but I’m rolling my eyes at all the attention she will get.’ 24 hours later, under pressure, Rosen issued a formal apology, resigned from his fellowship post and withdrew his remarks, claiming that his comments were ‘private jokes’ intended for only a small group of people.
Worse still were the comments made by Debbie Schlussel, a conservative political commentator, on her blog titled ‘Islam fan Lara Logan gets a taste of Islam’, where she made these incredibly ignorant and offensive remarks – towards both Muslims and Logan herself: ‘Lara Logan was among the chief cheerleaders of this ‘revolution’ by animals. Now she knows what Islamic revolution is really all about. So sad, too bad, Lara. No one told her to go there. She knew the risks. And she should have known what Islam is all about. Now she knows. Or so we’d hope. Hope you’re enjoying therevolution, Lara!’
These astounding sweeping remarks not only paint all Muslims as ‘animals’ but point the finger of blame for the assault squarely at Logan herself for daring to do her job despite knowing the ‘risks’. Considering that in the US, where Logan and Schlussel reside,1 in 6 women will be raped in their lifetime, and where a sexual assault occurs every 2 minutes, one could argue that to simply be a woman, anywhere is ‘risky’.
Unfortunately for women, rape and sexual assault cut across all borders, ethnicities, and religions, and to claim otherwise is both ignorant and hypocritical. Sadly, however, rape myths are all too pervasive, and these have popped up again and again on media message-boards in the US, where people have again pointed the finger of blame on Logan, who’s striking blonde looks (she is a former swimwear model) have been pinpointed as the reason behind her attack.
She is undeniably beautiful: a petite blonde who does not look her 40 years. But this has no impact on her attack – sexual assault and rape are not to do with sexual attraction but rather a desire to impose power, control and cruelty over someone else. In addition, questions have been raised over the suitability of female foreign correspondents reporting from any zone deemed ‘dangerous’. Unfortunately, Logan’s experience is not an isolated one: Judith Matcloff, a friend of Logan’s and experienced correspondent herself stated that ‘it comes with the territory’ and that Logan’s experience has made such headlines because ‘female journalists tend not to come forward about these things’. They are fearful that they would be seen as a liability due to their gender and that their editors might not be willing to send them on certain assignments. For women at the pinnacle of their career, that is not an option.
Additionally, the judgement that might be levelled at them for their ‘risk-taking’ is both sharp and plentiful. Logan has been heavily criticised for putting herself on the line when she is a mother with a two-year old child at home. Conversely, the many male foreign correspondents who are fathers and husbands and also face danger in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan are held up as heroic in their quest to bear witness to events around the world. Logan’s assault has highlighted how pervasive sexist attitudes and rape myths remain in the media: sadly unsurprising, even in the 21st Century. On the other hand, Logan, who herself signed off on the CBS report detailing her attack, must be admired for her tenacity and determination to speak out despite the judgement and risk to her career she must have been aware she was opening herself up to.
I don’t think I’ve ever watched quite so much television as I have in the past three weeks. I’ve watched with fascination, hope, and fear as Tunisian and Egyptian protestors demanded the resignation of Hosni Mubarak and their first democratic government since, well, forever. But I’ve found the coverage of these protests in the media (almost) as fascinating: from the debate around which revolution the Nile or Lotus uprising best resembles, to how many women participated in the mass gatherings in Tahrir Square and elsewhere.
This interest in women’s involvement in the Egyptian protests is, I think, partly as a result of perceptions around women’s position within North Africa and the Middle East – can protests in support of democracy be truly democratic if they exclude women – and also because of the iconic images of women in the last major round of protests in the Arab world: the Green, or Twitter, Revolution in Iran in 2009. The death of Neda Agha Soltan who was quickly described as the first martyr of the failed revolution, as well as the number of photographs of female protestors, positioned young women at the heart of this revolt of Iran’s frustrated youth.
And as websites and coverage of the Egyptian protests demonstrated, women – and particularly young women – did join the protests, albeit in smaller numbers than young men. Whether they were part of the groups of young people who organised the protests remains to be seen – I have my doubts – but the fact is that they were there. This is a good moment to consider the role that women have played in revolutions in the past.
In a nice turn of phrase, revolutions have been described as ‘festivals of the oppressed’. They allow those frequently marginalised within society – the poor, the youth, women, and ethnic, cultural, and religious minorities – to take to the streets and demand equal rights. In a sense, revolutions open up spaces usually closed to these groups. By turning the world ‘upside down’, revolutions allow citizens to rethink how they use and occupy public spaces.
We know that women have participated in revolutions since the eighteenth century, and usually in large numbers. During the 1789 French Revolution, poor women featured strongly in the protests against high food prices which were partly responsible for sparking off the revolution. The women’s march to Versailles on 5 October 1789 was caused partly by women’s anger at the cost of bread and other staples, but was also an expression of their political frustrations: gathering at the gates of Versailles they demanded that Louis XVI to accept, among other things, the Declaration of the Rights of Man. This is an important point: although poor women – who were responsible for feeding their families – were preoccupied with ‘bread and butter’ issues, and often literally so, they were also politically savvy and, along with men, demanded a fundamental shift in the nature of governance in France. When housewives and market women invaded the revolutionary Assembly on 20 May 1795, they did so both in protest of food shortages and to demand that the Constitution be implemented.
Many male revolutionaries certainly did support the idea of equal for women, but were slow to implement them. Enraged that the Declaration of the Rights of Man excluded women, Olympe de Gouges wrote the Declaration of the Rights of Women in 1791. In it, she declared ‘Woman is born free and lives equal to man in her rights’ and demanded equal rights for men and women. Men did welcome women into the political clubs and societies which emerged during the Revolution, but the Society of Revolutionary Republican Women was the first political group for ordinary women to be established in Europe. It became a key faction in revolutionary politics, representing the interests of poor and middle-class women.
However, the revolutionary governments did not materially improve the lot of women, and after his coup d’état in 1799, Napoleon instituted measures which restricted the rights of women to an even greater extent than before the Revolution. A fairly similar pattern of events occurred during and after the 1917 Russian Revolution. While women didn’t play the same active role as in France at the end of the eighteenth century, there were feminist groups in Russia who campaigned for equal rights. The Leagues of Equal Rights and of Women’s Equality organized a 40,000-strong women’s demonstration in 1917. The Bolsheviks – many of whom regarded women’s rights as a distraction – only established a women’s wing, Zhenotdel, in 1919. This successfully campaigned for the introduction of crèche facilities, laundries, and canteens to free women up from domestic work. But it was disbanded by Stalin in 1930, who preferred to emphasise the roles played by women in the family.
In one of the most telling comments about the Egyptian protests, one participant Heba Lashin commented that for the first time she felt safe and comfortable in Cairo’s public spaces. In the past she would have stayed away from protests: ‘The risk is too high and the returns are too low. I could get groped, and no one is listening to them anyway. But now, we aren’t even thinking about this. We are all only thinking about one thing. This has become our focus.’ As the examples discussed above suggest, revolutions tend to offer women the chance of full gender equality, but, in the end, tend to sacrifice this in the name of other concerns deemed to be more important. Considered in spatial terms, women retreat from the streets and squares which they occupied during the revolution, and back to their homes.
Let’s hope that Egypt proves to be the exception in this case.