From the January-February 2023 issue of News & Letters
In the early 2010s, massive pro-democracy demonstrations called the Arab Spring challenged authoritarian regimes in the Middle East and North Africa. In Cairo, Egypt, nearly two million people regularly packed Tahrir Square for months calling for the downfall of the government of Hosni Mubarak and its violent police force. Demonstrations continued after his fall, after the Muslim Brotherhood, a fundamentalist party, was elected and even after the military seized power from them.
Women played important roles as organizers, activists and journalists in these demonstrations, but after Mubarak was ousted, women were often attacked in the Square and raped by mobs of men.
ORGANIZED TO STOP RAPE
Opantish (Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment and Assault) was one of the earliest groups formed to rescue women during attacks and provide aid. Yasmin El-Rifae, a co-founder, used her own memories and other Opantish members’ to write this important account: Radius: A Story of Feminist Revolution, published by Verso in 2022.
Opantish had a sophisticated organizational structure run from a “control room,” usually an apartment overlooking the Square. Hundreds of volunteers formed intervention teams pushing through mobs, extracting one or more women, and providing them with first aid and clothing, since theirs was often ripped away. Getaway drivers took them to hospitals or safe areas.
The organization was started by women who had been attacked or witnessed others attacked. Many of its members were Leftist activists, and it was run on radical feminist principles. It was women-led, and stressed that women had the right to be in public spaces and participate in demonstrations. Male allies were also important since it was easier for them to struggle through crowds.
Members decided women should be able to participate in intervention teams if they chose because it was their right. People felt an overwhelming need to help when witnessing attacks. Another reason was female victims recovered from shock and could be extracted more quickly upon seeing and hearing another woman.
Opantish and other activists believed many mob attacks on women were ordered by authorities, a common tactic to silence female activists and purge them from public life. The group also viewed the attacks as a betrayal of women by the Left, since attacks could be initiated and participated in by fellow demonstrators. Opantish’s press release stated, “This phenomenon requires urgent attention and treatment, and is linked to the broader social problem of endemic and daily sexual harassment and assault of women.”
Leftist groups and political parties had a responsibility to provide security since they had called for these demonstrations. Opantish unfortunately foretold the future when they said that ignoring the attacks “jeopardizes not only women’s participation but the very success of the revolution.”
VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN IS UNIVERSAL
El-Rifae emphasizes the universal nature of the problem of male violence against women. She states that NGOs often “framed sexual violence as an issue of class, education, and awareness, and called for tougher policing as a remedy.” Women she met in other countries faced the same harassment and threats by groups of men. She states, “Treating sexual violence as a problem of culture or class also makes it easily used against Arab societies and Arab men in particular.” Members described observing connections with other patriarchal methods of controlling women.
She describes the universality of issues faced by activists in organizations. Wanting to make decisions democratically but maintain radical values, the same small group monopolized discussions. El-Rifae found this discussed in the essay “The Tyranny of Structurelessness” by Jo Freeman writing about American radical feminist collectives.
Contentious issues included protecting women at right-wing rallies and using the corrupt criminal justice system. Opantish “was about using a militant feminist approach to finally bring the issue of gender liberation to the center of the revolution.” They wanted to change society, not use reformist means like segregating the demonstrators to protect women, but they still wanted to protect all women immediately.
This dilemma ended with the end of the revolution. El-Rifae describes activists navigating physical and emotional effects of PTSD and survivor’s guilt on relationships. All of the wisdom gathered by the experiences of participants will contribute to the next struggle for total democracy. This book is an important record and will inspire revolutionaries to write about tactics, issues, insights, and emotional effects of activism.