Human rights groups have reported at least 91 assaults within four days - sexual violence against women is tainting the positive image of Tahrir Square. Activist Nihal Saad Zaghloul talks about ways to stop this trend.
DW: Where are you?
Nihal Saad Zaghloul: I'm home, I live near Robah, where most of the Islamists are protesting and the army has closed the area around us, so it's very difficult to go anywhere. I wanted to go to Tahrir today, but I was unable to.
There are lots of rescue squads like the Tahrir Bodyguards and the OpAntiSH [Operation Anti-Sexual Harrassment] who have cancelled their operation for tonight [05.07.2013]; they say it's too dangerous for their volunteers to go there. What's your view?
I think it's dangerous. Today is more violent than any of other days, there is live ammo being shot and teargas. It's really dangerous. I haven't witnessed it, but I've spoken to my friends from Tahrir Bodyguards and OpAntiSh and it is becoming really dangerous. The more we patrol and the more we fight for women's rights the more violence that comes from harassers and rapists.
What about your own group? When DW spoke to you a few months ago you'd founded Bassma. Are you still active?
Yes, we are still active, and we are working on several awareness campaigns right now in schools, universities and on public transportation. We are going to start activating those campaigns after Ramaddan which is essentially one month from now. So right now we're preparing for them. Bassma doesn't go out on Tahrir, however, some of our volunteers go and help OpAntiSh and Tahrir Bodyguards. All in all, that makes 40 to 60 people.
When we spoke to you last time you said there had been lots of positive feedback from the population, more and more people seem willing to talk and to speak out against violence against women that is happening in the protests. Has that changed? Is your movement still growing or is the overwhelming mood one of frustration in the light of what seems to be a rise in violent assaults?
It is changing. More people are willing to talk, our movement is continuing to grow. However the more you fight, the more violent the attacks become. But we are still growing. More and more people are rejecting it, several news outlets are talking about it, which was never the case before. So we are progressing, however, it takes time. Change takes time.
This week was a particularly frustrating one for groups like yours that are active in the field you're active in. There have been reports of at least 91 attacks on women in four days. What do you say to that?
It's extremely frustrating, depressing, we got a lot of feedback saying it's good what you do. So it is frustrating but it's also a push for us to continue because now we know the problem and we understand it more every day.
There are reports that the Muslim brotherhood actually paid gangs to conduct those acts of violence against women in an attempt to keep women from participating in public life. What do you think of those claims?
Women's rights have never been the focus, neither during Mubarak's rule, nor Morsi. So it's unfair to only blame it on Morsi. He made a lot of mistakes and he didn't pay much attention to women's rights, but none of the previous regimes actually did anything for women's rights. And [Anwar] Sadat, for example was one of the biggest violators of women's rights. They did virginity tests, they beat women up and they did a lot of things that from my perspective were inhumane. As for the thugs being paid on Tahrir, there's no proof. I can't say anything because there's no proof.
It is very worrying that in February 2012 members of Egypt's Shura Council said that General Adel Afifi claimed women contributed 100-percent in rape because they put themselves in such circumstances.
It is extremely worrying and frustrating, what he said indicated complete ignorance on his part. But it doesn't prove that they paid people to commit these crimes.
How much hope do you actually have that the situation will get better? How much more has to happen before they push to improve the rights for women and increase ways of making Egyptian women participate normally in Egyptian society - how much more needs to happen for everybody to understand that this is vital if Egypt wants to be a stable society?
I have a lot of hope because I see a lot of women standing up everyday, struggling for their rights and not giving up. So I have a lot of hope for Egypt, especially when it comes to women's rights. I know it seems really dark right now, but every day I see examples that are mind-blowing. And it will take time, somewhere in the next five to 10 years. But I have hope.
What are the examples that you call mind-blowing?
Female activists like Tahrir Bodyguard and OpAntiSH or other feminist groups that train women for political participation. There are several examples of women's organizations in Egypt that have really excelled. There are lots of individual examples of women who have been thrown out of their homes, but they have educated themselves and now they are really changing. So I think there's a lot of hope there.
What's interesting is that some of your groups try and rescue protesters by building walls – there are actually men who participate. Do you feel like the learning process has begun for Egyptian men?
Definitely. Once you decide to include men and say okay, feminism or defending women's rights is no longer an exclusive right for women, then you have a lot of men who want to join in. They have mothers, they have sisters, and they truly believe that women are human beings. So I think the curve is going up –the learning process for both women and especially for men.
Do you have men in your own environment who say they have to do something to change the perception of women?
The majority of Bassma for instance are men. And they spread the word and awareness about how women are human beings and how they should be respected in our society. Bassma is one example that men are learning and men are joining women's groups.
How does Bassma work? What do you do?
We do two things: We work on security patrolling, and ensuring aid during feasts and other times when incidents of sexual harassment are high. So we work on intervention and prevention of sexual harassment and the other part is spreading awareness. That we should respect women as people and that sexual harassment should be refused by all men and for women to stand up for their rights. Now we're working on workshops, we'd like to talk to kids in schools, street kids and orphanages about the importance of equality between men and women.
Egypt's National Council for Women was working together with the Interior Ministry to set up a system where women could report cases of sexual harassment to women police officers. In the light of recent events, these projects risk not coming into being for a long time. Will they have to start from scratch?
I'm not sure how the National Council for women will proceed; I hope they won't have to start from scratch. I hope they'll make a stand for what happened to the women on Tahrir and truly try to make a difference. But we're not starting from scratch, we're continuing with our projects. I just hope that all Egyptians will understand that we're all brothers and sisters of this country, and I hope we'll reach a point where we'll respect each others' opinions and differences – despite everything that's going on.
Nihal Saad Zaghloul is an IT programmer who began the women’s support group Bassma in 2012.
DW's Nina Haase conducted the interview.