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Can Egyptian women start a revolution against sexual violence?

February 12, 2016 at 6:35 PM EST
In Tahrir Square, the center of the Egyptian revolution five years ago, women safely joined men to protest for a new future. But that moment soon ended; hundreds, even thousands of female protestors were sexually assaulted. In some cases, activists believe the government used violence as a political weapon. Special correspondent Nick Schifrin examines how women have fought back through activism.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Egyptian women were on the front lines of the revolution that began in Tahrir Square. The five years since have seen the collective and individual struggles of women in Egypt become a revolution in itself.

Tonight, special correspondent Nick Schifrin presents the final story in our series 5 Years On.

YASMINE EL-BARAMAWY, Egyptian Activist: I never joined any demonstrations before. Once I went to the square, I was really happy. A revolution is about hope, is about change. It’s about being better.

MONA AL MASRY, Wife of Imprisoned Muslim Brotherhood Member (through interpreter): It was a great victory. We managed to change the way men think, because they understand that we are now on the front line with them.

SALMA SAID, Egyptian Activist: People were trying to create a different society.

NICK SCHIFRIN: Five years ago, Egyptians did create a different society. Throughout the revolution, women were at the center of the movement.

SALMA SAID: Women went to Tahrir Square and imposed this situation. We’re going to sleep in the street like everyone else and we are going to organize and we are part of the protests. And we’re going to lead protests sometimes and lead organizations.

NICK SCHIFRIN: In Tahrir Square, female protesters found a freedom they hoped the culture would echo. Salma Said has been protesting for 15 years.

SALMA SAID: I have never been surrounded with so many Egyptian and non-Egyptian men without being harassed before. And, of course, that changed right after, even in the protests, because this utopia doesn’t last for even the length of a full revolution. It ends.

NICK SCHIFRIN: No one knows that more than Yasmine El-Baramawy. She joined hundreds of thousands of protesters in Tahrir Square. And then, one night in late 2012, horror.

YASMINE EL-BARAMAWY: They attacked me, and they stripped me and they raped me. And I was beaten. It was really violent. It lasted for 70 minutes. If it was 15 minutes, if it was 20 minutes, it was 30 minutes, I was learning all that time. And it felt like I had the experience of 30 years or 40 years in this hour.

NICK SCHIFRIN: From late 2012 through the middle of 2013, human rights groups say hundreds, perhaps thousands of female protesters were sexually assaulted. In at least some cases, activists believe the government used violence as a political weapon.

YASMINE EL-BARAMAWY: I didn’t doubt for a moment that this is a coincidence. I believe it is organized and it happened to many other women that day and later.

SALMA SAID: The government was on the television saying, women who go to the square deserve this to happen.

NICK SCHIFRIN: President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi has tried to strike a different tone. He visited a sexual assault victim in hospital. But his government defends a controversial procedure called virginity tests.

NAGLAA EL ADLY, National Council for Women: It is some type of protection for women themselves. Yes.

NICK SCHIFRIN: Naglaa El-Adly is on the government-sponsored National Council for Women. In 2012, virginity tests administered by security officials sparked massive protests. Human rights defenders call them an example of sexual assault.

These tests are being forced upon these women. And they don’t have a choice. And they are physically invasive and emotionally very difficult.

NAGLAA EL ADLY: Yes. It’s a rule. I have to obey the rule and the law.

NICK SCHIFRIN: Female activists knew, if they wanted to continue protesting, they couldn’t rely on police for protection. So, they started organizations that protected one another. You can see one of the group’s bodyguards in bright yellow vests trying to defend female protesters.

SALMA SAID: We saw horrible things that I never thought I would experience. The third anniversary of the revolution, which is 25th of Jan., 2013, there were 19 cases of rape in the square. I personally went to the hospital with a girl who has been raped with knives in the square. And I never forgot that.

NICK SCHIFRIN: But violence against women is not limited to protests. A U.N. study found 99 percent of Egyptian women suffered sexual harassment or assault.

REEM WAEL, Executive Director, HarassMap: All women face sexual harassment. It is an endemic problem.

NICK SCHIFRIN: The women’s rights group HarassMap is trying to fight the violence. Its Web site features locations where people have been harassed.

Reem Wael is the executive director.

REEM WAEL: It helps us monitor the trends of sexual harassment and use this information to debunk all the stereotypes.

NICK SCHIFRIN: At Cairo University, the group helped create the first sexual misconduct policy in the Middle East.

On the streets, HarassMap teamed up with Uber to educate drivers how to avoid harassing customers. Drivers now stick these harassment-free zone stickers onto their cars. And the group launched a TV campaign after Egypt passed its first sexual harassment law last summer. The ads empower women to report harassment. They deliver the message the fault is never the victims.

SONDOS SHABAYEK, Theater Group Leader: We try to remove the stigma of the stories.

NICK SCHIFRIN: Sondos Shabayek tries to turn harassment victims into storytellers. She leads a theater troupe that recrates moments of harassment on stage.

SONDOS SHABAYEK: Something that was a source of shame becomes a source of empowerment.

NICK SCHIFRIN: Mona al-Masry had found empowerment in her own home. Her husband is a senior member of the Muslim Brotherhood. He is in jail, sentenced to death. Before the revolution, Muslim Brotherhood men led protests. But with the men silenced, women are leading, and getting arrested.

MONA AL MASRY: The women of the Muslim Brotherhood once knew an easier life. Now we know of a harder, more powerful life. The future is beautiful and better, and we raise our daughters to understand this.

NICK SCHIFRIN: Do you want to introduce me to your children?

Her two daughters, 7-year-old Aisha and 12-year-old Tasbeeh, are learning her lessons.

TASBEEH AL MASRY, Daughter of Imprisoned Muslim Brotherhood Member (through intrepreter): I learned that, when difficult things happen, I should be strong.

NICK SCHIFRIN: But, in this family, mom’s students are not her daughters. Youssef is 15.

YOUSSEF AL MASRY, Son of Imprisoned Muslim Brotherhood Member (through interpreter): I have been learning from her since I was born. She taught me how to be a man.

NICK SCHIFRIN: How do you feel when you hear him say that? I can see you getting emotional.

YASMINE EL-BARAMAWY: Women are supposed to be weaker, but I don’t see it this way at all.

NICK SCHIFRIN: There may be no woman, no person who’s changing society’s expectations than Yasmine El-Baramawy. During her attack, outnumbered by more than a hundred, she found strength she didn’t know she had.

YASMINE EL-BARAMAWY: I changed from defending to attacking. I had this feeling that the people must know and we can’t be silent.

NICK SCHIFRIN: But before going public, she had to teach that lesson to her own family.

YASMINE EL-BARAMAWY: When I told my father, he said, no, don’t go on TV. And he threatened me that he will deny I’m his daughter.

NICK SCHIFRIN: But she was stronger than he was. She went on TV to become the first Egyptian woman to publicly describe her rape. Later, she became the first Egyptian woman to prosecute her attackers. Her father learned the lesson when her entire family supported her.

YASMINE EL-BARAMAWY: They said, your girl is a hero. And he became proud of me.

(LAUGHTER)

NICK SCHIFRIN: She became the face of a global rally against sexual assault. Hundreds of thousands celebrated her courage.

YASMINE EL-BARAMAWY: Everybody avoids talking about this, but when I did it, it became sort of a power to change the culture.

I felt the need to say, I’m someone. I have a job and I have a life and I do many things, and I have a brain I use, I have opinions, I have many things. I’m not just a victim of that.

NICK SCHIFRIN: Nick Schifrin, “PBS NewsHour,” Cairo.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you can watch all three of Nick’s reports from Egypt in our series 5 Years On. You can find them on our World page at PBS.org/NewsHour.

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