In the fall of 2012, almost two years into the Egyptian revolution, there began to be more and more reports of sexual attacks on women at demonstrations in Egypt. Since President Hosni Mubarak’s ouster in February 2011, the country had been undergoing a chaotic, contentious political transition. An interim military government was dedicated to protecting the interests of the old regime, Islamist parties were pursuing political power, and various prorevolution groups were clamoring for real reforms.
Large crowds were still gathering regularly, most often in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. In these crowds, women were encircled by groups of men, stripped, beaten, raped, and dragged from one end of the square to the other. Sometimes hundreds of men were involved; the attacks could last hours. The women were trapped, unable to escape or to get help.
There had always been violence, including sexual violence, at the protests. On the night when Mubarak was forced to step down, the South African journalist Lara Logan was sexually assaulted by a mob of men amid the celebrations in Tahrir Square. Later that year the military conducted “virginity tests” on female protesters it detained; a general explained that these young women, who had camped in the square alongside men, “were not like your daughter or mine…. We didn’t want [them] to say we had sexually assaulted or raped them, so we wanted to prove they weren’t virgins in the first place.” In December 2011 soldiers breaking up a protest were caught on camera dragging and stomping on a female protester, whose abaya was lifted to reveal her blue bra. Many commentators in Egypt seemed more outraged by the exposure of the unconscious woman’s body than by the harm being done to it.
Yet the attacks in 2012 were so vicious, widespread, and systematic that they felt like something new. Since protesters first gathered in large numbers there, Tahrir Square had been tense and scary at times, but it had also been welcoming and open. Generally one knew what direction danger might come from (police, informers, counterdemonstrators). But no one knew who the perpetrators of these mob rapes were. Making the square unsafe for women was a shift in the nature of the protests: it destroyed a sense of trust and hope that was fundamental to the politics they had expressed. (It was at this time that I—a journalist who had lived in Cairo for the past decade—stopped wading into crowds in Tahrir.)
The police had withdrawn from the streets when the revolution began; they only engaged with protests to violently disperse them. The country’s political factions deplored the sexual attacks, argued over who was responsible, but took no measures to stop them. So a number of activist groups sprang up to protect women and to assert their right to participate in the country’s public and political life.
Yasmin El-Rifae’s Radius: A Story of Feminist Revolution looks back on one of the best known of these groups, Opantish (Operation Anti–Sexual Harassment and Assault), to which she belonged. Its members were feminists, leftists, activists, people whose lives had been transformed by the uprising against Mubarak and who shared “the feeling…that if Tahrir was lost, the whole dream of change would be lost with it.” At the height of its activity, the organization had hundreds of volunteers, both men and women, who were divided into teams with specific tasks: to spot attacks, to gather reports, to direct operations on the ground, to intervene in the crowds, to provide transportation and medical care, to speak to the media. The “radius” of the title refers to the circles of assault in which women were caught, to the way their presence in the street, in the revolution, and in society was delimited, their experience and their voices circumscribed. It also suggests the way every act—of violence or of solidarity—radiates outward, rippling into the world.
Rifae’s book is based on her recollections and on interviews conducted over many years with friends and comrades. (I was a reader of an early draft.) It opens on the night of January 25, 2013, the two-year anniversary of the start of the revolution. Rifae describes one of Opantish’s members, T, preparing for what was sure to be an enormous gathering in Tahrir. T puts on a one-piece swimsuit over a pair of long johns: “A base layer of protection, hard to remove, impossible to rip.” Over that go jeans and heavy boots that won’t come off. “A ponytail would be too easy to pull, an obvious target,” T thinks as she pins her hair up and ties a scarf around it.
These are all precautions T takes against the violence she knows she will face as she tries to help other women. But on that night in January, the scale of the attacks was so extreme that the Opantish volunteers were overwhelmed: they lost touch with one another and were injured and assaulted themselves. In their accounts, they describe throngs of men, some of them armed, who dragged women away from their friends, cut their clothes off, groped them, and penetrated them with their fingers. Disgustingly, some men pretended to be helping, bellowing commands and exhortations (“Leave her alone!”) as they prolonged and participated in the assaults. All night, a stream of women—shell-shocked, bleeding, barefoot, half-naked—came to the group’s operation room in an apartment on the edge of Tahrir. A crowd of men, seeing them enter and exit, tried to break into the building.
Yet after this terrible night, the organization did not give up; if anything its members became more determined. They reached out to the public, recruited hundreds of volunteers, honed their strategies. They insisted that women should be the leaders within the organization and that if they wanted to they should be involved in all aspects of its work, no matter how dangerous. The volunteers learned to form disciplined human corridors to puncture the circles of attackers. They learned that if they spoke quietly to the men around them, acting as if they expected them to help, they could sometimes bring them over to their side. They learned that it had to be a woman who moved down the corridor, because after having been assaulted by a mob of screaming, clutching men, a woman would only trust another woman to get her out—would cling to her once she saw her.
The center of this book is the center of those nightmarish circles: the place in which a lone woman (the attackers always isolated their victims) is experiencing the worst terror and pain imaginable, and the place into which another woman thrusts herself, risking her own safety to save a stranger. Rifae reconstructs these scenes in vivid and devastating detail:
Everyone started moving and she tried not to look backward…. She could hear the zapping of electric tasers. They were moving faster now, it felt like the rings of people could go on forever, not a circle or a mob but an ocean of men. Someone in front of her started yelling, “Here! Here! Lina!” and she was being pulled forward, and she saw the woman….
“My name is Lina, I’m with Opantish, I’m here to help you,” she said.
She had to repeat this twice, three times before the woman heard her but, when she did, she looked stunned for a second, and Lina wasn’t sure if she was going to push her away. But then she threw her body into Lina’s….
Her grip was strong and over and over again she said matsebeneesh. Don’t leave me.
Lina already knew that she was no longer a person who had come to help this woman. They were a unit now, and they would make it out together or not at all. Her other teammates were huddling around the two of them, to take them back out of the circle the same way that Lina had come in.
The first reaction these stories almost always provoke is: How could this happen? Who were the perpetrators? Why did they do this? Rifae and her friends wondered these things too, but their focus was on acting against this unacceptable violence, not wasting time trying to understand it. Because they did act, her book also poses a different question: “How did people—women and men, but especially women—find it in themselves to use their bodies, to risk their minds, to save strangers? What did they do with their fear?”
The assaults were an enraging betrayal. Women went to the most celebrated, visible space of the revolution to participate as citizens, and they were hunted like animals, brutalized, and dehumanized. Then they were told to be quiet about what they had been through because it was shameful—to their families, their country, their revolution, and themselves. Rifae tells the story of Nahya, a volunteer who spent three days in the hospital with Nora, who had been assaulted with a knife.
No one brought Nora flowers. Everyone was focused on hiding the truth of what had happened to her, on hiding the wound, on burying it.
“The neighbors are wondering where she is,” Nora’s sister said. “They think they smell dishonor.”
In the end, the surgeon replaced Nora’s hymen without asking her.
“I have made you like you were before,” he told her proudly after the operation. Nahya thought his words were cruel—Nora would never be the same, nor should she have to be. But it was the relief on Nora’s face at hearing them that made Nahya cry.
An official Opantish statement from the period reads:
At a time when the very presence of women in Tahrir Square carries the same level of risk and danger as approaching the front lines of battle, the women who insist on exercising their rights to participate in demonstrations should be respectfully viewed as a source of courage and inspiration. We are dismayed by the dismissive attitude taken by most political movements to their injuries.
Revolutionary groups and figures feared that discussing the sexual violence in the square would delegitimize the protests; they didn’t know how to integrate it with their romantic narrative of the uprising. After one Opantish activist gave a television interview in which she described her own assault, a well-known male leader confronted her:
“You fucking bitch,” he said to her, and he wasn’t shouting but his voice was raised.
It was a week after her TV interview. About ten of their friends were in the living room with them.
“Why are you doing this? You want your moment in front of the cameras so much that you’re willing to make us all look bad? You want to shit on the revolution?”
It was a common refrain at the time that the “deep state” was orchestrating the attacks to undermine the revolution. Certainly there was a history of the government punishing female protesters with sexual assault. In 2005 I had seen anti-Mubarak protesters kettled by police and then beaten by beltagiyya—plainclothes thugs. The attacks on women were sexualized: the thugs groped them and tore their clothes. This was considered a scandal at the time. One of the women, the journalist Nawal Ali, filed a legal complaint; her case was dismissed, and progovernment newspapers reported that she had stripped off her own clothes to frame the regime.
But there were also always mob assaults that had no political motivation. In 2009 a terrorist threw a bomb at a group of tourists in the medieval market of Khan el-Khalili. I rushed to the scene with two other female journalists. By the time we got there it was dark, and the neighborhood was tense, abuzz. A group of young men surrounded us on a side street; one reached out and unzipped the jeans of the woman standing next to me. An older man intervened, yelling at the boys and pulling us out of their circle. Over the years I heard many stories from other women about being attacked by groups of men in crowded places (during a festival, a protest, a rally in a stadium) and at exceptional times, when regular forms of state authority and social control were suspended.
“We have a problem, in Egypt, protecting our bodies from abuse in public space,” Rifae writes. The Egyptian uprising was partly ignited by police beating a young man to death in the street; its basis was a demand for bodily safety and dignity. The security apparatus used sexual violence as a way to punish and intimidate women (and men), but it wasn’t the sole source of that violence. If the state did provoke or encourage the attacks, it did so by exploiting a reservoir of misogyny that existed everywhere, even among those who had rebelled against it. Rifae and her fellow activists were forced, she writes, to confront “the reality that at least some of the people doing this harm were people we might have stood shoulder to shoulder with at demonstrations or in battles with the police.” As one of her male teammates tells her, “The explanation that the state sent these people is too easy, it allows for denial. It creates this picture where there are always the clear bad guys. It’s not true…. I think it’s from the heart of society.”
It turned out that overcoming misogyny was much harder than overthrowing a dictator. T wrote in a later Facebook post:
We thought that people who went out against power and defeated it would definitely go out against all injustice, that people who called for freedom must believe in freedom for everybody, but it turned out that that’s not necessarily true…turns out it’s normal to be both revolutionary and patriarchal…that someone against military rule can also be a harasser…that someone against the [Muslim Brotherhood] can also believe we should stay home so that we don’t distract them with our side problems and they can focus on “the battle.”
Rifae makes the way she and others have continued to process their experience part of the story. In the summer of 2013, following huge anti-Islamist protests, the recently elected president, Mohamed Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, was ousted and arrested by the military. The police and the army returned to the streets. General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi (then minister of defense) called for demonstrations to give the army a mandate to fight terrorism—a thinly veiled call for popular support for violence against the Brotherhood.
Opantish went through an intense internal debate over whether to be present at such military-backed rallies. Some argued that the group should continue to protect women at all public gatherings, others that it shouldn’t do anything to legitimize the new regime. As the group expanded, so did the divide between its leadership, which was militantly feminist and politically radical, and its more mainstream volunteer base. “In the end, all we had in common with many of the volunteers, with our supporters, was a belief that women shouldn’t be raped in the streets,” T said later. “And that’s not a very high bar.”
Before any of these tensions could be resolved, the organization’s very existence became impossible. In August 2013 the security forces moved to clear an Islamist sit-in in Rabaa el-Adawiya Square, killing at least eight hundred people. The military regime headed by Sisi (who was elected president within a year of the coup against Morsi) outlawed the Brotherhood and moved quickly to criminalize all forms of assembly and expression, all vestiges of revolutionary organizing.
Opantish’s members had to deal with the collapse of their political hopes as well as with the lingering trauma of everything they had willingly put themselves through. Some friendships were strained beyond repair; people had breakdowns, left the country or dropped out of touch, were overcome with anger or guilt. Rifae is aware of how difficult it is to reconstruct such a transformative, painful, collective experience. She writes that when she started reaching out to arrange interviews, she was “afraid of knocking on doors that people needed to keep closed.”
One of the book’s epigraphs is a quote from a friend identified as Farida: “Whatever it is that you write in this book, I’ll always have a problem with it. Because I’ll always be looking for the gaps between what you’ve written and what I remember.” At the end of the book, Farida tells Rifae that she cannot remember much of a night when she was attacked. “Do you know what happened to me?” she asks Rifae, who writes, “I feel like a thief, holding information that is not mine.” Rifae also can’t retrieve her own memory of her experience as a member of an intervention team in the square. Among other things, her book is a study of trauma, of how to narrate it with rigor and respect, how to recover the memory of it, find the words for it, without asserting ownership over its meaning.
At different points in her story, Rifae asks herself why she is telling it at all. She comes up with several answers. It is a point of pride; it is something she feels she owes others; it is a compulsion. (“I could not write anything else until I had written this.”) It is a way to insist that this actually happened, even though Egypt, like so many other places, seems more patriarchal than ever, even though the suffering and the courage of these women has been written out of the celebration and the mourning of the Arab Spring.
Rifae also tells us, “I want everything in this book to be true.” She achieves this by stripping her story down to its bones. Every line reads as if it’s been carefully weighed, gauged for strength and utility, found capable of bearing the truth. The writing is beautiful and clean, carrying readers through harrowing and heartbreaking moments.
In short, evocative sections, Rifae connects her time at Opantish with other experiences she has had as a woman before and after. These are almost always grounded in physical observation and awareness, as when she describes enduring obscene propositions from drivers when she was a teenager waiting for the bus in her neighborhood: “I looked away, turned my back, walked up and down the sidewalk, feeling trapped in the open air. I remember wishing that the trees had thicker trunks so that I could hide behind them.” After the military coup, when all demonstrations were made illegal, she describes her dread at attending one: “I can’t go and I can’t stay home. My fear is so inevitable and matter-of-fact, so natural to my blood now, that I cannot even loathe myself for it.” When she leaves Cairo for New York, she writes, “My body felt different after I left. Softer, rounder. My clothes all seemed wrong, like someone had suddenly switched a light on and I was seeing them for the first time.” And when she becomes pregnant, she realizes, “In some sense, my body has always been treated like it was not just mine—it was always all of its reproductive potential, both a potential asset and a potential disruption.”
Her later chapters on pregnancy and motherhood are powerful explorations of the loneliness, loss of control, discovery, and joy of these experiences. They are just one way Rifae makes a particular Egyptian story resonate with the wider question of how women can make the world more safe and free for themselves. She inscribes the history of Opantish into the broader, global feminist struggle, which ranges from the recent revocation of the constitutional right to abortion in the US to the way that restrictions on women’s bodily autonomy have been the flashpoint of demonstrations in Iran, where female protesters have also been brutally targeted by regime forces. To view what happened to women in Egypt as merely the product of an Arab or Muslim pathology, to view their experience as something pitiable and alien, would be to cordon them off once again in another way.
As a fellow activist who is also named Yasmine discovers when she begins speaking to foreign media about her experience of sexual assault:
After nearly every interview, a member of the crew—the cameraman, the producer, the journalist herself—stayed behind, sometimes just a few seconds, to tell Yasmine that they had also been raped or abused. As the rest of the team waited by the elevator, they would tell her and say, “I just wanted you to know that.”
She started trying to guess, during the interviews, which one of them it would be.
As I read Radius and as I talked about it with other women, I found that it constantly spurred us to think about our experiences of sexual violence and the fear and anger they leave us with. Prompting this kind of conversation is one of the book’s intended effects. At one point Rifae writes:
Rather than wondering about the efficacy of addressing men, can we think of breaking into their awareness as a by-product of us speaking to one another? Can we focus instead on our own networks, on thinking together, on resisting together, on supporting one another—openly?
One way to do this is to tell one another our stories, and to tell one another’s stories. This account of a brave, generous, and largely unacknowledged enterprise is not only an essential record of modern Egyptian history; it’s a testament to what women are capable of, to what can be achieved through passionate collective action. “The world shows us, over and over again, that we are still being attacked,” Rifae writes. “At least sometimes when we fight back we don’t have to do it alone.”