Friday, February 18, 2011

Feb 11th

I am tall, blonde, foreign. I live in Cairo, Egypt. Normally, my physical appearance bears no relevance to either my actions or to the words I write. But I was in Tahrir Square the night of February 11th, arriving an hour after the news of Mubarek's departure was announced. The streets surrounding Tahrir were already chaotic, makeshift fireworks erupting on sidewalks and motorbikes blaring their horns as they wove amidst the stalled traffic. Entire families, with children in tow, flooded out of their homes to join the celebration. Women both veiled and unveiled joined male family members to jubilantly rejoice in the downfall of a 30 year dictator. I dressed modestly as usual, in loose jeans and a baggy, long-sleeved shirt.

Tahrir was a different story. My male companion and I pushed towards the center of the square, heedless of the increasingly dense crowds pressing on all sides. Crowds that were predominantly male, drunk and high on euphoria, felt invincible, citizens of a country that had toppled its government and seemed to wield limitless power. I had been in the crowd for less than a minute before I felt my ass pinched, viciously. Then a hand reached around and squeezed my boob, hard. Although we had not yet reached the heart of the square, the mass of people overwhelmed its capacity and movement ceased. In essence, we were trapped in a seething pit of humanity without an outlet. Although public displays of affection are generally frowned upon, I grabbed my friends hand, his entire arm, and clutched onto him, pulling him behind me to deter would-be attackers. It did little. Hands reached in from all sides, grabbing my butt, my boobs, my vagina. I tried to stomp on feet around me, twist fingers, but there were too many.

It was then I realized the complete lack of women in the square. There were clusters of them standing on curbs, amassed in large numbers to ward of harassment. I saw a husband with his arms completely around the front of his veiled wife, pushing his way out of the crowd, grimly determined to protect her. But individual women, like me, were virtually non-existent. I used elbows and knees to force my way out of the crowd, my friend wrapping his arms around me like I'd seen the husband do to his wife. At one point, the the ebb of the crowd pulled him away but I yanked him back, desperately. Men came to my rescue, recognized the struggle I was in and pushed the crowd aside, as much as they could, to provide a slim outlet. I was alhamdulilah, not brutally assaulted like Lara Logan; we were able to escape the crowd before that kind of attack occurred.

I had been visiting Tahrir almost every day since the 28th of January, photographing, filming, and documenting the protests with very few incidences of harassment, far less than I usually receive walking down the street in Egypt. I attribute this to several factors, though I have only my own observations to support them. First, the mere presence of daylight generally deters errant hands from “copping a feel”. Secondly, the thorough security checkpoints surrounding the square established an atmosphere of protection and accountability. The men entering the square were risking their lives to take down a regime. They were idealists in a sense, men with a purpose and a cause that saw everyone else in the square as a fellow patriot, or, in my case, as someone who could share their story with the world. After Mubarek's defeat, joining the celebrations although they had risked nothing, came men who were opportunists to use the celebration for their own devices.

Image was everything to the revolutionary protesters; I was approached one day by a woman who greeted me politely and asked why I had taken a picture of garbage. She told me that was not the image the protesters wished to convey to the world, that freedom and solidarity were the aims of the movement, not piles of garbage. The protesters incessantly chanted “silmeea, silmeea,” which roughly translates to “peacful, peaceful,” stressing the non-violent nature of the movement. They were demanding respect from the government and instilling it into every action of the protests themselves. Respect between Egyptians and the army, between Muslims and Christians, towards foreigners and women joining the demonstrations, towards the state of the cleanliness of the square.

It was not until this atmosphere of respect evaporated on the night of Feb 11th, when the volunteer security of the protesters were overwhelmed by the mobs of Egyptians entering the square, did I confront violent harassment. To me, this does not demonstrate wanton misogyny specific to Egypt; as greater minds have shown, violence against women in prevalent everywhere in the world. It demonstrates the value of education and accountability in abolishing sexual harassment. In Tahrir Square, over the day's leading up to Mubarek's departure, mutual solidarity and respect between all was required to present a unified front to the world; any would-be harassers were led away by fellow demonstrators and admonished if not detained. It worked within the microcosm of Tahrir Square during a revolution. I am not certain it could be applied outside this arena. However, if this system of accountability was to be applied by the government, if the regime halted sexual assault as a weapon of torture, if sexual harassment became a crime instead of a fixture of everyday life, if rape victims were were not blamed as "asking for it", then women in Cairo could celebrate their own revolution.