Ever since the coup in Egypt last July, university students have been at the forefront of battling military rule. A surge in anti-coup protests by students in the last two months demonstrates that they are the most vibrant and determined group resisting the return of a Mubarak-era police state.
The military regime in Egypt has employed ruthless measures against the opposition in order to instill fear and to silence dissent. But perhaps one of the most brutal tactics used by the Egyptian security forces and army is the systematic abuse of female student protesters. Human rights organisations and activists have routinely documented the use of state-sponsored sexual harassment against women.
Though the systematic sanction of the abhorrent practice is not new (it had been used for many years by the Mubarak regime), nothing matches the current level and the extent of violations against Egyptian women and young girls. On the very day of the coup, 3 July, more than 100 women were raped by a pro-coup mob celebrating their “victory”. Ever since, the targeting of female protesters has become a weapon of choice for the security forces and military, with an accelerated campaign of arrests, physical and verbal assaults, and sexual abuse.
According to the independent source Wikithawra, at least 70 women have been killed and 240 detained during the first six months of the coup – and the numbers keep rising. While pro-Morsi protesters and members of the Muslim Brotherhood have borne the brunt of police brutality, the crackdown has widened to include non-Islamist protestors.
Last November, a sit-in against the new protest law by the non-Islamist group “No to Military Trials” was violently dispersed. Protestors including many women were brutally beaten in the streets. As the men were taken into police custody, dozens of women were arrested, physically abused, taken to a remote place, and dumped at night in the middle of the desert.
The millennia-old Al-Azhar University has been a major battleground of constant student protests, resulting in the largest number of dead and detained students (184 students killed and over 1800 arrested). Female students’ involvement made them the subject of ferocious repression by the security forces.
Arresting and trying female political activists was not a common practice during Mubarak’s repressive rule; since the coup, it has become routine, occurring almost daily. Last November, an infamous court case in Alexandria shook the nation’s conscience, as 21 women younger than 23, including seven minors, were sentenced to 11 years in prison for peacefully demonstrating as part of the “seven o'clock in the morning movement”. Even though the harsh sentences were reduced on appeal, the message was clear: the regime would not back away from intimidating and punishing anyone who dared challenge it.
Abuse in custody
What happens to protesters inside police stations and prisons is also alarming. In addition to physical and verbal abuse, female protesters have been subjected to virginity and pregnancy tests by the army and police, a practice that was initiated by the military council that took over after Mubarak stepped down in February 2011. These degrading practices were defended by none other the then chief of military intelligence Abdel Fattah El- Sisi, the coup leader who is now running for president.
He defended the virginity tests against widespread outrage, deeming them necessary to “protect” the army from accusations of rape. So it’s not surprising that the practice resumed after the coup as confirmed by a number of girls and women who were recently released from prison.
Male students are also humiliated while in custody, as security police officers have forced them to stand naked before their female colleagues. Many assert that they were beaten, tortured and forced to “admit they are women”. Unfortunately, the abuses do not stop there.
The story of Dahab Hamdy, an 18-year-old pregnant young woman who was arbitrarily arrested on the day of the constitutional referendum in mid-January demonstrates the extent the regime is willing to go to suppress its opponents. Even though Dahab had no political affiliation, her ordeal sent a message from the regime to all female protesters. A few weeks after her arrest, Dahab was forced to give birth while in detention. The image of her handcuffed to the bed while delivering her baby was seared in people’s consciences. She was only released after the pictures were widely spread on the Internet. She named her daughter “Hurriyah”, or Freedom.
Amani Hasan, a 33-year-old mother of two, was arrested with her brother following the dispersal of an anti-coup demonstration where a poster of former President Morsi was found in her car. Amani detailed the torture she was subjected to while in custody. She was severely beaten, threatened with rape, burned with cigarettes, and forced to sign a false confession. While in poor health and severe pain from a previous medical condition, she was forced to sleep on the floor. After five months without being transferred to a prison medical facility, Amani was finally released – but is now completely paralysed.
Line of fire
While these examples may seem extreme, the reality is that female protesters are daily targeted by the regime in order to break the anti-coup resistance. Ola Tarek, 14, is the youngest female political detainee in Egypt. Three months after her arrest she remains in prison for participating in an anti-coup demonstration. A few days ago, Karima El-Serafy, 20, was arrested at home and taken to an undisclosed location. Serafy was not even demonstrating when arrested. Her crime is being the daughter of a detained MB leader and Morsi’s aide. Her arrest was an attempt to pressure her father, who is on trial, to admit to the fabricated charges of conspiracy and treason.
What is even more outrageous is that four female friends of Karima were also arrested when they went to visit her in prison. Shortly after their detention, all five young girls were charged with membership in a terrorist organization and ordered 15 days of prison pending investigation.
The systemic abuse of female students by the security forces and army has been proliferating. It includes beatings by plain-clothed police, sexual abuse, and even being mowed by cars. Nevertheless, the protesters remain strong and determined. Azhar University student Ayat Hamada, 18, was imprisoned for over three months on dubious charges after being arrested on campus for protesting the coup. She sent a message from prison to her colleagues, who demonstrated daily demanding her release: “I will always be a free revolutionary, and prison will never break me.”
The junta has two aims: to traumatise and intimidate women and girls to drive them out of the public space, which they have claimed assertively since the January 2011 revolution, and to humiliate male protesters by demonstrating their inability to protect their female colleagues, instilling fear and breaking their spirit. On both fronts, it seems to be failing, since the protests across Egypt’s campuses have been increasing, not declining.
For years, the West has been calling for the empowerment of women in the Middle East, but there is nothing more disenfranchising to women in Egypt or across the region than the physical, sexual, and mental abuse female students are subjected to on a daily basis by the army and police. Equally, there is nothing more empowering to women than standing up with dignified determination to the bullying of the coup-led government – demanding not only their own rights, but also the right of all their fellow citizens to live free in a real democracy.