When the Arab Spring hit in early 2011, no one could have guessed what it might have meant for women’s rights in Egypt. But as the country continues to feel its way through a revolution, there is one surprising outcome — several citizen’s groups are now patrolling the streets of Cairo, and taking action against men that perpetrate violence against women.
If anything, the uprising has made violence and harassment against women more visible, say officials, and that’s spurred residents into action. Teenage boys as young as 16 are even joining the patrols. The groups are in response to a culture of government and police inaction, bolstered in part by a former regime that touted that violence against women was a non-issue in Egypt.
“The police did not take harassment seriously,” Madiha el-Safty, a sociology professor at the American University in Cairo, told The New York Times. “People didn’t file complaints. It was always under-reported.”
But if it appears that there is some kind of feminist uprising happening in Egypt — amongst both men and women — think again. Experts say the vigilante justice has everything to do with frustration at the government, not some kind of transitioning status of women and girls. And some women’s groups are fearful that the violence enacted by these mobs will only make matters worse. They’ve instead pursued a policy of non-violence toward attackers, employing videotaping and internet shaming in order to bring attackers to justice.
Some of the groups have even done what they call “pre-emptive attacks” on what they perceive to be would-be attackers. And that’s creating a public perception problem for those who are legitimately trying to protect women in Egypt. In some cases, members of these protective groups are actually getting arrested for assault, which seems as if there may be a culture of paternalism underlying these anti-harassment acts.
Still, these citizen’s groups believe they are doing something positive for the women of Cairo. Said 16-year-old Omar Talaat, who joined one of the patrols, “The harasser doesn’t see anyone who will hold him accountable,” and these groups are certainly changing that.