Friday, June 13, 2014

CIRCLE HELLS AND HIP HOP: HOW EGYPTIAN WOMEN ARE FIGHTING BACK AGAINST SEXUAL VIOLENCE

Last year, Egyptian artists Mira Shihadeh and Zeft painted the mural “The Circle of Hell” just outside of Cairo's Tahrir Square.  At the centre of the mural is a lone woman surrounded by lecherous wide-eyed men with snake-like tongues.  Knives smeared with blood are aimed at the woman.  Is it her blood, or another woman’s?  Perhaps it is the blood of many women.  Whoever the blood belongs to, the woman in the mural cannot escape: the throngs of men who are holding her hostage stretch deep into the background, suggesting the violence the woman is facing will not only be unfathomable and terrifying, but will end with her dead at the roadside.

The mural of course is not just a piece of art inspired by the street harassment and sexual violence, it could very well be a picture or a video depicting the public lives of women and girls in Egypt.  In fact, on the evening of Sunday, June 8, during the inaugural celebration for Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Egypt's newly-elected president, a teenager, surrounded by men, was stripped naked, groped, and sexually attacked.  A two-minute video of the attack shows the young woman limping towards a police car; her body, wounded and bloody from the sexual beatings, was still being pawed and grabbed by several men who wanted pieces of her.

“The Circle of Hell” by  Mira Shihadeh and Zeft, Cairo, Egypt, 2013.  

Unfortunately, this attack was just one of many that took place at the national gathering.  Nine other women reported that they too were sexually harassed and assaulted.  Without a doubt, many more attacks occurred that evening—attacks that have been witnessed, but ignored, attacks that went unreported.  This, despite the issuance of a new decree declaring that sexual harassment may be punishable for up to five years in prison.  However, according to Egyptian feminist organizations, the decree only amends—not radically transforms—current laws against abuse and does not necessarily criminalize sexual harassment, referring such cases as “indecent assault.”

According to the recently released report, Egypt: Keeping Women Out - Sexual Violence Against Women in the Public Sphere,” authored by several Egyptian women’s organization, over 250 cases ranging from sexual harassment to gang-rape in public spaces took place between November 2012 and January 2014.  None of the reported attacks have been brought to justice. 

In response to the endemic sexual violence, Egyptian women artists, activists and feminists are using all artistic mediums and political platforms to raise national and international awareness and support.  The latest to join the army of women against sexual violence is 19-year old Mayam Mahmoud, Egypt’s first veiled rapper, who gained recognition after performing on “Arabs Got Talent” last October. 

Mayam Mahmoud, Egypt's "first veiled rapper" addresses sexual
violence against women in her songs

 Aside from rapping about and against sexual violence, Mahmoud also uses hip hop to challenge the archaic and misogynistic rhetoric of victim-blaming.  In an interview with the Global Post, the rapper stated, “I see male rappers in Egypt writing songs to blame women for the sexual harassment inflicted upon them.  They say we deserve to be harassed because of the clothes or makeup that we wear.”

And despite receiving death and rape threats, Mahmoud, who raps exclusively in Arabic to better communicate with Egyptian youth, continues to perform, asserting in the interview with the Global Post, “Egyptian women experience sexual abuse on a daily basis,” she said. “It’s our story to tell, nobody else can tell it because it’s our pain.”

With young women like Mayan Mahmoud taking the helm against sexual violence, it’s a sign that the violent hell encircling women are crumbling at the edges.