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The accounts send a shudder down the spine, reports of systematic and orchestrated assaults against women that have taken place in Tahrir Square this year. The incidents are a reminder that nature, in abhorring a vacuum, often fills it with hideous subject matter. On the edge of reason, when political structures are finding a basis of stability and fear, victims abound. They can, sadly, take the form of gendered violence, instances of punitive control over perceived deviancy.
Since the Egyptian Revolution was unleashed, the reporting of sexual crimes has increased. Operation Anti-Sexual Harrassment/Assault (OpAntiSh), an outfit created to rescue victims of the Square, received 19 reports of group assaults in January. Six of the victims ended up in hospital, while an instance of genital mutilation was also noted.
The arguments from clerics and those on the conservative side of the fence were not sympathetic. If you are raped, you were asking for it. A person who was there at the time they were assaulted may themselves have been up to no good. The rationale for punishment thereby comes full circle – one is violent to punish those who transgress, a vigilante measure that, while receiving no formal paper trail to the government, reeks of complicity.
Egyptian cleric Abu Islam is a polemical case in point, claiming on Al-Omma TV on February 7 that “naked, unveiled women who go [to Tahrir Square] in order to get raped – all of a sudden, they are considered taboo.” For the indignant representative, a religious undertone was very much present – to be feminine was not merely to be Islamic but abide by “religious obligation to be a women.” Ergo, women who were protesting were not Islamic but “Crusader women, and the other 10 per cent being Freemasons and widows who are fearless and out of control.”
Rape, to that end, is a weapon, an imposition, not merely the cudgel of patriarchy but its shackles. In the case of ancient Rome, the rape of the Sabine women in the 8th century BC was premised on the very idea that the state needed fresh offspring, be it through unattractive invitation or applied coercion. Romulus, in sending emissaries to neighbouring peoples, sought marriages and alliances. “But nowhere,” writes the historian Livy in his History of Rome, “were the emissaries given a fair hearing.” A feast was subsequently organised within the walls of the city, with the entire Sabine population in attendance. The signal was duly made and the women carried off, booty to sire new bodies for the city.
Romulus would explain to the incarcerated womenfolk that none of this would have transpired had their men not been so “inflexible” about their womenfolk’s bodies. Here, rationalised sexual violence finds its greatest articulation, a scrappy dispute over property, a disagreement over the ways of female flesh. “A good relationship,” proclaimed Romulus, “often begins with an offence.”
The rapes initiated in Tahrir Square have no Sabine inspiration other than one of affirmation: that women should not protest and that, if they do, they should be punished. To slightly adjust a remark made by British writer Laurie Penny in The Independent (Nov 4, 2011), a woman’s opinion is the short skirt of the revolution. (Penny was writing about opinion expressed online, a flaunting message that is “somehow asking an amorphous mass of almost-entirely male keyboard-bashers to tell you how they’d like to rape, kill and urinate on you.”)
OpAntiSh admit that they do not have “concrete” evidence that such attacks issue from the state. There are “only testimonies from victims, but we know it is a tactic.” The purpose? To “ruin the image of Tahrir Square and demonstrators in general.” They are not the only ones, and globally, rape remains a form of grotesque discipline, a tool of power that is often wielded by the impotent.
As Rebecca Solnit quite rightly asserts in a piece for Al-Jazeera (Feb 10) the business of rape is a global business, enacted with grim, ritualistic frequency. In the United States, there is a reported rape every 6.2 minutes, with one in five women raped in her lifetime. Gang rapes have taken place in India and Mexico, though it is only those that veer their lurid way into the news. The eccentric have also found their way to get coverage involving instances of remarkable violence against women – a San Diego man who killed and cooked his wife last November, or a man from New Orleans who did the same to his girlfriend in 2005. Others are chokingly silent.
With such specific reports coming from Cairo, it is easy to forget that rape is a pandemic, if not, in many terrifying instances, an afterthought. How easy it is to forget that politicians of the GOP in the United States have been happy to explain rape pregnancies as gifts from god, a form of divine intervention that denies, at the end of the day, the autonomy of the subject. As an end, such behaviour has one fundamental outcome: the denial of liberty itself.
Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org