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Revolutionary Interventions

Fighting an outbreak of sexual violence in Tahrir Square
A cut out of a hand holds a feminine hand in the front of Tahrir Square.

Radius: A Story of Feminist Revolution (2022) by Yasmin El-Rifae. Verso Books, 224 pages.

T pulls on her long johns and then slips into a one-piece swimsuit, a DIY chastity belt that is “hard to remove, impossible to rip.” Her jeans come on last, and the uncomfortable tightness of the outfit leaves her feeling protected. In another bedroom elsewhere in the city, Marwan gets dressed, recalling the fingers of strangers poking at his asshole. He, too, chooses additional layers of clothing: tight briefs under a pair of boxers, and jeans that are securely held in place by a belt.

It is January 25, 2013, the second anniversary of the Egyptian revolution that brought down the despotic Hosni Mubarak. Across Cairo, organizers volunteering with Opantish (Operation Anti Sexual Harassment and Assault) are getting ready to join the crowds in Tahrir Square. In the organization’s operations room, the women-led activists sort themselves into three groups: “Midan,” which distributes flyers with numbers to call if attacks are spotted; “Rescue,” which pulls out women being assaulted; and “Safety,” which provides survivors with first aid kits and extra clothing. This is frontline organizing at its most agile, adrenaline-infused, improvisational.

The hotlines begin ringing at 5 p.m., two hours before the intervention teams are scheduled to be on the square. Already, women are being isolated and surrounded by crowds of men and groped, undressed, beaten. There is one woman, totally naked, being attacked near KFC. Another by Hardee’s. Yet another resists being pulled into a microbus on Tahrir Street. Habiba fields these calls and communicates with the teams on the ground, who have been given mobile phones so their own don’t get tracked or stolen. Hours fly by, phone lines break down, and volunteers, armed solely with Opantish T-shirts, are overwhelmed by the throngs, some of whom have knives and guns. By the time they rush to the site of an assault, the woman has almost invariably been carried away by the crowd, which then tightens itself around her like a fist.

T fights her way through one such mass to get to Mona, who is being violated, her gaze darting wildly. It takes T some time to establish eye contact as she grips Mona’s shoulders amid the frenzy, embracing her, gaining her trust, letting her know she might survive. T’s body becomes a security blanket, one that begins to weather the assault itself, as hands work their way into her undergarments. She turns to the man behind her, whose finger is up her ass, and yells that the man next to her is trying to steal her backpack. Suddenly a hero, the man assaulting her takes out his neighbor. In this way, T hustles through the crowd with Mona until they get into an ambulance. A few men, believing themselves to be saviors, climb in too. The ambulance careens left and right in Cairo’s streets, throwing its passengers around. One of those saviors lands over T and kneads her chest.

Back in the operations room, as evening sets in, the space becomes a triage unit where injured and assaulted volunteers retreat. Their shock is palpable. It has never been this bad. Nineteen group sexual assaults are recorded that night. Opantish intervenes in fifteen, pulling women out from crazed masses. Exhausted, the organizers collapse wherever they find space or slump to their homes, broken, resolute. Then, around midnight, after most of the people have dispersed from the square, Habiba learns that a nineteen-year-old woman has just been raped with a knife, sliced open from vagina to anus. She is on her way to the hospital.

What Is This Hatred?

Formed in late 2012, at a time when the Egyptian revolution, in the words of Yasmin El-Rifae, “was in a state of political and spiritual crisis,” Opantish emerged as a squad—“a feminist intervention group”—to protect survivors and limit their traumas (other similar groups included the Tahrir Bodyguards and Basma). As Egypt careened out of its first democratic elections post-Mubarak, into the government of Mohamad Morsi, and then endured a coup that solidified counterrevolutionary authoritarian rule under General Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, Opantish mobilized with a singular mission in mind: to protect women and girls in the protests. During this upheaval, the lived reality of women morphed from normalized leering, harassment, and objectification in Cairo’s public spaces into a relentless wave of sexualized violence that was almost incomprehensible, terrorizing the women—and sometimes men—who dared to join the protesters seeking a new democratic order in Egypt.

During this upheaval, the daily reality of leering, harassment, and objectification of women in Cairo’s public spaces morphed into a relentless wave of sexualized violence.

Radius: A Story of Feminist Revolution is painful to read. As a member of Opantish, El-Rifae offers the reader a front-row view of those tumultuous years. The book is a tapestry of trauma, revolution, healing, catharsis, and pain, replicating the spectrum of emotions unleashed by present-day activism in the Middle East. El-Rifae stitches together interviews with Opantish organizers, journal entries, press statements, and accounts of the group’s operations, as well as her observations on revolutionary moments, the agony of defeat, and ultimately alienation and estrangement after she settles with her partner and children in the West, an exile that gives her distance to reflect on her experience.

In its early days, Opantish organizers interpreted the sexual violence in Tahrir Square as a premeditated attack by the Mubarak regime and its defenders. In a press statement released after the events of January 25, 2013, Opantish noted that it “views these assaults as inseparable from the long list of repressive tactics which have targeted Egyptian activists,” tactics which had flourished under Mubarak and presumably continued after his removal from power by the surviving regime apparatus. But it did not take long for this conviction to falter in the face of the inexplicable scale of the violence. El-Rifae records the despair and confusion of her fellow organizers at a debriefing: “I never thought it could be this bad.” “I felt like we were being attacked by everyone, really by everyone.” “What is this hatred? What is this? I don’t understand, I don’t understand.”

“When I read our statements from back then,” T tells El-Rifae in an interview conducted in 2016, “it’s comical, it’s embarrassing. At the beginning, our line was that this was premeditated. By the end, we were like, no, we have a bigger problem. Even if it’s preorganized, the state might send a hundred people, but there are two thousand others in the street ready to take part in a rape. And that’s the real problem here.” They found that there was no clean separation between regime goons and their own comrades, those, as T put it, who “[we] might have stood shoulder to shoulder with at demonstrations. . . . People we otherwise considered allies.” The Mubarak regime may indeed have been the instigator, the kindlers, the system that birthed and fed this nightmare. But the sexualized mania that spread like wildfire indicated that the crowds were somehow primed to assault and rapidly descended into frenzied violence. In the streets, women protesters ceased to be humans, fellow revolutionaries; they became objects to be molested.

El-Rifae’s account of the sheer magnitude of the attacks in Tahrir Square brings to mind the protagonist of Nawal el Saadawi’s novel Woman at Point Zero, Firdaus, who escapes an abusive underage marriage and runs throughout her city, in its streets and markets, seeking salvation or an act of kindness. Help is offered in various ways, by different individuals, both men and women. Yet every encounter she stumbles into ultimately leads to her violation: a rape, imprisonment in a house where she is sexually enslaved, or her prostitution. The ubiquity of the sexualized violence she confronts beggars belief. The reader is left with one question: Is it even plausible no one can assist without taking advantage of the woman?

But Radius is not a book of fiction. It is real life, and its pages—like the incidents they recount—are infused with the sense that there is a menacing shadow lurking around every corner during the demonstrations. As T notes, the Opantish organizers had to confront the truth that the violence directed at them came “from the heart of society.”

The Persistence of Patriarchy

In 1988, thinking about the “disintegration of Lebanon” during its fifteen-year civil war, the Palestinian scholar Hisham Sharabi introduced the still-relevant concept of the neopatriarchal society. A main feature of this society, which is prevalent in the Middle East today, is the presence of a two-state system: “a military-bureaucratic structure alongside a secret police structure.” It is the latter that “dominates everyday life, serving as the ultimate regulator of civil and political existence” by bending the state’s bureaucracy to serve the will of the nation’s patriarch. Neopatriarchy, Sharabi theorizes, transcends class, religion, and nationalism—and infuses both secular and Islamist thought. It is a “total cultural phenomenon,” a key organizing principle of political and social order in the region.

Neopatriarchy, Hisham Sharabi theorizes, transcends class, religion, and nationalism—and infuses both secular and Islamist thought.

Neopatriarchy is neither intrinsic to the Middle East nor a fixed structure; it is dynamic, “the outcome of . . . the marriage of imperialism and patriarchy,” a marriage that spawned a modernized version of traditional patriarchy rather than eliminating it. Sharabi traces the sociohistorical processes that produced this resilient neopatriarchal structure, chief among them colonial capital, which forced an economic dependence on the Western world and distorted the region’s modernization trajectory, thereby limiting development and stunting the conditions for social revolution.

Drawing on the social psychologist Ali Zay’our, Sharabi views the male-dominated family as a core building block of neopatriarchy, as it was of patriarchy. It is a space where children are taught obedience, acceptance of domination, and deference to authority at the expense of autonomy and creativity. Such socialization, Sharabi argues, extends much further than childhood. It “reinforces the central system of patronage” which maintains the status quo in a neopatriarchal society and ensures the state’s bureaucracy functions solely to sustain the will of the leader, not to serve the citizen. Ultimately, the state’s laws, public institutions, and professional and governmental agencies are rendered superfluous. What predominates is coercive obedience to male figures of authority. In Cairo, the structural position of these figures is reflected even in the built environment. As Nermin Allam explains in Women and the Egyptian Revolution, the streets and squares where the revolution unfolded were planned to primarily accommodate male bodies, making the mere presence of women a provocation.

This is one possible explanation for the hysteria El-Rifae documents: when a neopatriarchal regime is confronted in revolutionary times, the ordering principle holding society comes under pressure. As the nation’s patriarchal figure is openly challenged, the logic underpinning various political and social norms, which are rooted in institutionalized deference, comes undone. The result is a breakdown of those very norms, and a sexualized masculinity unleashed in its rawest, most violent, and ubiquitous form. In El-Rifae’s telling, too many men in Cairo appeared to be teetering dangerously, helplessly, between the roles of violent assailant and honorable protector, as if crossing that chasm was not an entirely conscious decision, as if rationality had been suspended.

She recounts a revealing exchange that a male volunteer named Adam had with one of the assailants in the crowd, a man “who had become part of a whole that undefined them.” Rather than pushing him back, using physical force to put him in place or to arrest his assault, Adam leaned into the man’s ear and whispered, “We’re here to help. I know you’re here to help, too, of course. I know you’re trying to help that poor girl.” The assailant transformed in an instant, like a light switch had gone on. One “can only diffuse madness and hysteria by being the exact opposite,” Adam notes, explaining his appeal. “People just go crazy, they’re encouraged by the others. . . . So we encouraged them to be heroes, by speaking with them very calmly, very intimately, speaking in their ear. Never adding to the sense of danger and hysteria by shouting or creating panic.”

This tactic was much needed due to the disparity in numbers between the assailants and Opantish, which made physical confrontation ineffective. With his gentle intervention, Adam was able to break through the chaos of the moment and snap the man back to his senses. But he was also appealing, consciously or otherwise, to the assailant as a man charged with protecting a woman’s honor. This is familiar, instinctive, to most men who grow up in the region. The code regulating relations between men and women boils down to honor, and the assumed responsibility of any man is to safeguard the virtue of women and girls around him—another lesson of Sharabi’s patriarchal family, where males are charged with protecting the reputations of female members. Harassment is a betrayal of this duty, and unless a woman is “deserving” of it by dressing provocatively or engaging in “unbecoming behavior,” men can sometimes—by no means always—be shamed for crossing a line.

Farida, a survivor who wrote out her testimony on Facebook after her attack, had a different experience than Adam while trying to appeal to any remaining sense of propriety. “I kept screaming, ‘Stop, you animals!’ like an idiot, even though I knew that screaming wouldn’t do anything. The idea that a scandal will make people gather and help—an idea I was used to on the street in an everyday sense—was useless here,” she wrote. Unlike Adam’s quiet intervention, which offset the mayhem and brought the assailants back to a veneer of social respectability, Farida’s terrified screams did not jolt the men out of their aggression; amid the craze and the threat of scandal, the flimsy code of honor—itself subjective and rooted in values that rob women of agency—had collapsed.

Women’s Revolution

In their press statement released after January 25, 2013, Opantish wrote that the organization “stresses that continuing to ignore the dangers women face in the ongoing struggle for justice in this country jeopardizes not only women’s participation but the very success of the revolution.” For the women revolutionaries at the core, “Opantish was about saving women but it was also about a strategic political ambition. It was about using a militant feminist approach to finally bring the issue of gender liberation to the center of the revolution.” As the Egyptian scholar Sherine Hafez puts it in her 2019 book Women of the Midan, many activists who took part in Tahrir reclaimed the image of the fallen woman and depicted her as a body fighting back in graffiti and other images produced of and for the revolution. Like the Opantish organizers involved in this courageous movement, these activists understood that for the revolution to succeed and for a new order to emerge, the patriarchy, a foundational pillar of the political regime, had to be taken down.

The reader is asked to hold the truth that the perpetrators of sexual violence in Tahrir Square are also victims of imperial violence and that maybe, even, there is a causal link between the two.

But this is a fringe view. For most people taking to the street at that time, women’s rights were marginal to revolutionary change. The focus of most protesters was often largely directed at economic structures, freedom of speech, or political plurality, with chants such as “bread, freedom, and dignity” calling attention to unemployment and the cost of living. According to Allam, at the beginning of the revolution, many women revolutionaries resisted putting an explicitly feminist lens on their demands. Some of the women she interviewed even gave what she refers to as a “non-feminist disclaimer,” an assertion that they were not feminist activists, as if that might undermine their revolutionary zeal, sideline them, or conflate them with a liberal human rights discourse historically associated with the Mubarak regime and its mealy-mouthed relations with the West.

To underplay feminist values, or even to focus on feminism in isolation, is to miss the truth that patriarchy forms the bedrock of the authoritarian structures and colonial violence that activists sought—and still seek—to undo. El-Rifae’s book directs the reader’s gaze toward Opantish’s revolutionary thrust, which is unapologetically feminist. Published at a moment when activists throughout the region are, to use the writer Lina Mounzer’s words, “powerlessly enraged” at the counterrevolution continuing to fortify itself, Radius encapsulates the dilemmas that activists continue to grapple with. How do we ensure democratic values are embedded in the revolution, that it embodies consensus liberatory policies and avoids centralized and opaque decision-making, without risking paralysis and inaction? How do we form alliances with others to ensure a broad-based movement without undermining our own values? As El-Rifae puts it, “What did it mean if a large portion of the hundreds of volunteers didn’t share the same politics and saw what was happening as simply a humanitarian intervention? Where is the line between protecting a principle and monopolizing a movement, limiting it?” And how do we overcome the fault lines that fray these fraught alliances, when structures of power—internal and external to the movement—expend vast resources to undo unity?

As if these questions were not overwhelming enough, Opantish, like other feminist groups in the Middle East, had to contend with additional challenges. They were stuck in the unforgiving binary of imperialism and the patriarchy, worried about what it would mean to tell the story of this chapter in Egypt’s history in a world that disposes of brown bodies and sees Arab men as caricatures of overly sexualized, violent creatures. To reveal what happened in Tahrir is, according to El-Rifae, to risk adding “a sort of fuel for a European obsession with feeling threatened by Muslims.”

Calling out the patriarchy in the Arab world without succumbing to imperialist and racist tropes projected onto the Middle East is a fine balancing act, one that El-Rifae accomplishes in Radius. The reader is asked to hold the truth that the perpetrators of sexual violence in Tahrir Square are also victims of imperial violence and that there even may be a causal link between the two. “The systems of political, economic, and social control in Egypt are held up by—and hold up, in turn—the forces that run the prison industrial complex in the United States, that prosecute Europeans for saving migrants drowning off their shores,” El-Rifae writes. She also takes aim at the “white and Western feminism” which “has historically been part of this problem, hitching a saviour discourse to various imperialist and civilizing projects.”

Faced with these monumental obstacles, and with Abdel Fattah El-Sisi centralizing power, Opantish retreated into its safe zones, into ideological purity. As Rana, one of the organizers reflects, “like so many revolutionary groups, we had become snobbish and exclusive, only trusting friends or friends of friends. And we didn’t want to get involved in any real political work. You say you’re radical, but you blame everyone else for not being radical enough. It becomes an ideological fight, while people are getting hurt and killed.” These fights, so familiar to those organizing on the left, limited the political intervention that Opantish could accomplish.

Break the Silence

At a terrace party in Cairo during the brief period of Morsi’s administration, as talk of an army intervention gathered, El-Rifae offered her views to a fellow partygoer about what forcing the Islamists out of power would mean for Egyptian democracy. “Forcing Morsi out of power would give the Brotherhood a legitimate grievance to hold onto forever,” she said. “Also, it would mean military rule, at least for a while. I don’t think generals should be in charge of the country, do you?”

Her words were fraught in a polarized Egypt, where there was no space for the idea that support for the democratic process and opposition to a military coup were not synonymous with support for Islamism. The response from her male conversational partner was a quick glance at El-Rifae’s legs, revealed under a skirt. His inference was clear: You think you can wear a skirt like that under an Islamist government? In this look, El-Rifae recognized “the codes of upper-class circles that think of themselves as socially liberal but also hold deeply paternalistic attitudes.” His attitude was not unrelated to the mass violence on the square. Both result from a system that dictates what women’s bodies should look like and how they should conduct themselves in public.

Breaking our silence is a prerequisite to dismantling this system. Leïla Slimani has written of the silence that surrounds sexuality in Morocco, where all is accepted if it takes place behind closed doors. “In a society like ours,” she writes, “honor comes first. It isn’t so much people’s sex lives that we judge but how widely they dare to advertise them. . . . Our society has been eroded by the poison of its hypocrisy and by an institutionalised culture of lying”—what she calls elsewhere the “command to silence.” Sharabi, too, wrote of this bifurcation between inner and outer spaces, the neopatriarchal society “inwardly preoccupied with sex and outwardly behaving as though sex did not exist.”

The hidden lives of women, what El-Rifae calls “double lives,” are a kind of defense mechanism adopted to protect women from both violence and shame, and to grant them a degree of emancipation, even if out of public view. But hiding cannot challenge the limits of acceptable female behavior or the position of women “at the center of social control and public morality.” Bringing these lives and their travails into the light is a difficult and dangerous task, and it weighed heavily on the Opantish organizers. As they grappled with the natural culmination of the policing of women in the form of senseless violence against women protesters, they thought of the poet and activist Audre Lorde, who wrote about the exhaustion of the oppressed who are called on to educate the oppressor, about the futility of talking and the importance of acting instead.

While recognizing the reality of this exhaustion and the often-disheartening experience of engaging, we must still hold onto the power of narrative. Revolutionary change does not always manifest in large-scale transformative eruptions; it is built on a foundation of incremental, cumulative, tireless political work. Much of this work happens behind closed doors, in private settings and intimate encounters. In our households, with our partners and our kids, among our friends and peers, at rooftop parties—all of these exchanges can be sites of social transformation. Every so often, we get the chance to claim public spaces as well, and in those moments, we can only hope that there are organizations like Opantish which hold true to their values in a moment of revolutionary change. But outside of those moments, there is much to be done.

In one of the most moving parts of Radius, El-Rifae recounts the story of Yasmine El-Baramawy, who spoke publicly about having been sexually assaulted in Tahrir Square despite her father imploring her not to. After her first interview, which can still be viewed on YouTube, was broadcast, her father texted her to say he was proud of her bravery. As El-Baramawy recounts to El-Rifae, at the end of subsequent interviews, someone from the filming crew would inevitably linger, come up to her, and share that they, too, were a survivor of sexual assault. “I just wanted you to know that,” they would often say; her own story had ricocheted across the room, creating echoes of solidarity.

Even though we are now living in dark times, and authoritarian patriarchy is flourishing in the region, the space that words create cannot be dismissed. The power of articulating that which cannot be said is the power that allowed El-Baramawy to turn a TV studio into a site of revolution. This, too, is what Radius does—it arms our struggle with language, shattering our complicitous silence.