Rape and Revolution

Tahrir Girl. Cairo, February 2012.

Shall I respond violently? No. The bloody mist that hangs above the ancient cities- Jalalabad, Quetta, Peshawar- reeks of vengeance. Shall I grieve endlessly? No. I am weary of perpetual sadness. I will not pout among clouds of opium like the ghosts of Khorramshahr.

I ask the question carefully: “How does one define if they were sexually assaulted?”

 My name is Bilal Ahmed. I enjoy mango juice. I want to colonize Mars. I was sexually abused as a child.

I remember myself in Grade 7. An authority figure is beating me while I’m in a headlock. I shove her back. Her eyes are widened with shock. I begin crying. “No!” I scream out with all the emotion I can muster. I spend nine years unlearning the lesson of that day: physical force can’t possible result in personal satisfaction. Can it?

Memories require triggers. I sit in my New Jersey home reading an account of rape in Tahrir Square. It has been difficult for many activists to explain this cocktail of power and death. Many overlook it. The questions it raises are easier to ignore than to answer.

Can you support liberation from revolutionaries who may also be violent misogynists ?

Do we directly confront the problem of misogyny that lies at the heart of the old order, or are there more pressing priorities?

Is there a difference the virginity tests perpetrated by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and the gender violence occurring within Tahrir Square?

Vital questions made voiceless by the fact that no one wishes to discuss it. This is an inconvenient topic. I drink my mango juice.

While on my way to Tahrir Square one night, I am jeered at from a street shop. I ignore it and walk away as I always do with street harassment. What about me makes me vulnerable to this anyway?

“Hey!” he yells out. I continue to walk away from him. Suddenly, three men begin running towards me. They hold me in place with bony hands. I can hear the Arabic. The vicious Arabic being hurled from their serpentine tongues. The saliva erupting from their palates with every consonant. I can feel it dancing through the air, defiling the earth after its flight from the bodily orifice.

I look behind me. I see the man who was originally jeering at me. He looks me in the eyes and kisses at me. His eyes are cloudy and strip my flesh bare. I glare at him and my lower jaw shakes. I throw the three men off and quickly dart across the city street. They give up and do not chase me. On the other side, a shop owner mocks me by faking a tackle. Another gestures a folding chair at my head. I glare at them and patiently walk away. 

They thought I deserved it. Maybe it isn’t what I think? Maybe I had done something wrong? Was I getting carried away in fearing what their skeletal fingers could have done to my body?

I walk through the same area on my way back from Tahrir. No one does anything. I do not tell anyone because I am not ready to answer the obvious question: “why do you go to these places if you don’t want to experience things like this?” 

Most questions related to sexual violence and gender normativity in the Middle East are not posited. It remains the equivalent of an ignored painting in Westminster Hall, staring down on us without being explicitly acknowledged. Perhaps some of us feel as though it isn’t time. Maybe others do not wish to interact with it and make the events real. There are more who agree with the wretched thing, in all its malevolence, making their points violently clear if given the opportunity.

And yet it hangs over us all the same, bearing down on those susceptible to it. For those who see the shadows morphing into those skeletal fingers. Bare fingers – if those hands are revolutionary – and gloved in laboratory latex they are reactionary. Caressing flesh and penetrating into orifices as they are drenched in blood. Storming their way into our vaginas, anuses, penises, and mouths. I think about the French military “penetrating” Algiers’ casbah during the Algerian Revolution.

The SCAF has targeted female activists through such vicious methods as virginity tests, while Tahrir Square is filled with its own levels of sexual violence. Death comes from the Supreme Council and Tahrir equally, with the latter’s betrayal being more significant as its implied promises were of broader liberation. Instead, many frequenters of Tahrir respond violently to any attempts to discuss sexual violence and discrimination in Egypt. Those who dissent from this stance are overpowered.

The week before the presidential runoffs, Tahrir Square was the site of a short protest against sexual harassment. Activists gathered together to shout slogans against the gropings, beatings, and rapes that have occurred in the Square over the past eighteen months. Expectedly, our fellow revolutionaries swarmed them and destroyed the protest less than an hour after it began. It reminded me of the Cairo International Women’s Day march that ended violently at Tahrir in March 2011.

The message was clear. Do not discuss these matters. Go home.

This is an uncomfortable topic. It requires an uncomfortable truth. The Arab world does not just have a problem with women. It has a problem with those who defy its dominant sexual narratives. I drink my mango juice.

Women in the Revolution. Cairo, November 2011.

I’m sitting in a hookah bar. I place the hose in my mouth and feel the smoke snaking down my esophagus. I exhale, spitting instead of swallowing. I purchase a box of mango juice. I feel nothing. Past experience with the FBI has taught me that this is a repressive stress response. I write a short blog post about the experience and discuss it with one of my best friends in order to ensure that I have some reaction. I believe that it is over. It isn’t over.

The next day, I hear a terrifying tale about a woman I cherish. She has attempted suicide. The woman’s vibrator was discovered by her older brother. Rather than noting his own promiscuity, he immediately told their parents because “they deserved to know.” He states that because of her sexual desires, she must get married immediately. His mother scolds the woman for engaging in un-Islamic behavior. The woman tries to get her keys from her brother, prompting a physical fight in which he tackles her to the ground. She feels her privacy violated as he injures her shoulder and neck. Several hours later, she tells her mother that she is sorry. She is numb. The woman has overdosed on insulin. I feel the needles inserting into her body and the fluids shooting through them. She felt her privacy penetrated and the blood rushing from her sexual boundaries.

I drink more mango juice. I read about the Voyager-2 probe and its imminent exit from the heliosphere towards interstellar space. The prospect excites me. I leave Egypt and return to the United States. I am reading an account of rape in Tahrir Square. Memories rush back to me. I can’t understand all of them. My eyes begin to widen and I can feel the men. I can feel their skeletal hands and their iron grips. I can see that damnable wretch kissing at me. What if I had been too afraid? What if I froze? I shudder. I feel their bony fingers caressing my body. I feel them cutting into my skin and forcing their way into my mouth and forcing it open. I can feel their saliva on their flesh. 

Their saliva? What saliva? There was no saliva. … This time?

I speak to a friend the next day. “Why did you go to Tahrir Square if you didn’t want this to happen in the first place?” She is frustrated with me just as my family was after counterterrorism agents began arriving at my house.

Our political aspirations will be undone if we refuse to hear the voiceless within our community. For me and millions of other activists, the bloody reality of Egypt’s counterrevolution has set in. Changing the world was never going to be easy. The rapes, bullets, and tear gas volleys have taught us this. But in my darkest moments, I remember the Middle East when I traveled to Yemen in 2010. It was a dystopia with a hanging sense of dread, exhaustion, and nostalgia for better days. Four months after I left, the Arab Spring began and our better days appeared to have arrived.

Perhaps I could view physical and sexual assault as proof that the world is a merciless and brutal place. That love and hope for the future is a privilege of those who have never experienced it. But I find much more attractive the prospect of rejecting the pain and marching for a better world in a subtler way. The old order is bloody and coated with death. Only love and enlightened political strategy can win the day.

Tahrir is a revolutionary space that has inherited the flaws that define wider society around it. Thus, it must address those flaws or be eradicated by them. If Tahrir is compromised by death from within, and those who value it are divided by physical and sexual violence, then it will never be able to adequately challenge the state of which the SCAF is only a part. Opposition networks cannot be weakened by engaging in these affairs. They must position themselves against their conservative tendencies in political, religious, and cultural spaces. The first step is to discuss them within the Egyptian pro-democracy movement itself.

The confrontation of these matters will not be easy. In many ways, it will require a fundamental reexamination of how things are done. However, we live in revolutionary times. As Ben M’Hidi prophetically states in The Battle of Algiers:

“It’s hard to start a revolution. Even harder to continue it. And hardest of all to win it. But, it’s only afterwards, when we have won, that the true difficulties begin. In short, Ali, there’s still much to do.”

I drink my mango juice and ponder my HBO mini-series about secessionism in a lunar colony.

The revolution has just begun. We have engaged ourselves in a protracted war to secure democratic liberation and the rule of law. Shall I abandon myself to grief and denial? No. I have felt all my pain and placed it behind me. The summer breeze caresses my body and I hear the trees swaying in the night. I smell the ripened fruits of our cherished mango grove. My boots crunch the Martian sands. An Egyptian flag sways in the celestial winds.

Tahrir Girl and Women in the Revolution photographs courtesy of Gigi Ibrahim. Published under a Creative Commons license.

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