I wonder how many women were slow to engage with the Weinstein story and the #MeToo campaign that followed. I was. I’ve been writing about sexual violence for years, but I ignored the Weinstein story for several days. I didn’t even bookmark it to read later. I didn’t want to be sucked into performing shock at the exposure of another powerful man as a sexual criminal, another story that’s been buried for years, a half-open secret finally in print.
When my Facebook feed flooded with #MeToo in English and in Arabic, I noticed that the posts by my Egyptian friends were longer, angrier, but also more questioning than the rest. Friends in Europe and America posted lots of statements: “Sadly, unsurprisingly, #metoo.” Right away, Egyptians wanted to talk about what this hashtag could do; who its audience was; the value of seeking male allies in the fight; the complicated dynamics of a movement pressuring women to “tell” when they might not want to, might not be able to. I appreciate that this snapshot analysis of my algorithmically curated Facebook feed is not scientific ground for a cross-national analysis of discourse. Perhaps my Egyptian friends are just more expressive on Facebook; perhaps I simply know more feminists from Cairo than anywhere else.
But I think there’s something important about the place from which we speak. In Egypt we do not have the pretense of a society that is equal or one in which women’s rights are protected. While the Trump presidency may have stripped America of this veneer, it’s still widely understood that things are “better” in America for women than they are in Egypt. In fact, news outlets recently reported on a study that found Cairo to be the “most dangerous” megacity for women. The study was based on the subjective input of unnamed “experts” from the 19 megacities on the list. Like so many sensationalist headlines about women in Arab societies, it was thrown into the world as evidence of some long-suspected sickness.
Stories about sexual violence in Arab countries almost always quarantine these problems as specific to Islam or Arab culture. This is how they are often reported on, and how analysts who make a living speaking on the topic often pitch it. Patriarchy is global, until it comes to the Arab world. Men everywhere hurt women because of interconnected systems of power that privilege them—but when we talk about Arabs or Muslims, we cut all of that away and make it simply about religion.
The first and most obvious problem with this is that it is patronizing, essentialist, and simplistic. It’s not helpful to women—suggesting that we must shed our entire culture and religion in order to save ourselves—and this attitude is easily weaponized against whole societies, and Arab men in particular. Arguments about the fundamental misogyny of Islam were used to justify the 2001 US-led war on Afghanistan, and, more recently, to demonize migrants following mob sexual assaults in Germany.
The second problem, the one that is talked about less, is that by separating out the struggles and experiences of Arab women we exclude them from the wider conversation and, in doing so, make their experiences less available and less useful to the rest of the world—most importantly, to women elsewhere who are thinking about similar problems.
Five years ago I stood on a street corner in Tahrir and watched, feeling useless, as dozens of men sexually attacked a woman—or perhaps multiple women. It was dark and it was difficult to make out what was going on right in front of me. The crowd was rotating around a central point that I could not see. Reports of mob attacks of this kind against female protesters had spread in recent weeks. In these mobs of dozens, sometimes hundreds of people, women were encircled, stripped, beaten, groped, and raped.
I was there with a group called Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment and Assault (OpAntiSH), which for the past few weeks had been intervening in mob attacks to rescue women. I was carrying a backpack containing an abaya (a full-length robe), a pair of medium-sized underwear, flip-flops, painkillers, gauze, and disinfectant—all the stuff we’d learned women might need after surviving these kinds of assaults. Although I could no longer see them, I knew that a team of OpAntiSH volunteers was physically fighting its way through the mob to reach the woman being attacked. I was part of a “safety unit” that was supposed to remain nearby but not get caught in the crowd so that we could get to the survivor afterwards and coordinate getting her home, or to one of the safe houses OpAntiSH had arranged, or, if necessary, to the hospital.
That night, our team’s plan had fallen apart. There were too few of us, too many of them; we weren’t prepared for a level of violence that involved knives and tasers; we hadn’t yet comprehended the overwhelming power of a crowd that size. I don’t know—or I can’t recall—what happened to the woman or women who were in the middle of that attack.
These attacks continued for months, plaguing political rallies in Tahrir, the square that symbolized a revolution. Now women were being attacked simply for being there, for being women. For OpAntiSH, things would get worse before they got better. The group had formed out of a network of friends, allies, and comrades in the revolution. It started out with about a dozen volunteers. We would face increased levels of violence—there was more than one gun. Many volunteers were physically and sexually attacked in the course of this work.
But over the months that followed, we learned, reorganized, and grew. We developed tactics for efficiently entering the mob, reaching and surrounding the woman or women being attacked, and getting them to safety.
During the week of June 30, 2013, protests drove the unseating of President Mohamed Morsi, who had succeeded Hosni Mubarak after his resignation during the first wave of protest, bringing the current regime of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to power. By this point, OpAntiSH was a sophisticated operation, deploying hundreds of volunteers, a central operations room, and getaway cars, and coordinating access to networks of safe houses, lawyers, and doctors. OpAntiSH was one of at least three civilian groups combating assaults on the ground during that summer week of protests, during which the groups documented 186 cases of mob attacks.
OpAntiSH was women-led, feminist, and revolutionary. Most of the organizers were women, and female volunteers engaged in all kinds of work—from physically intervening on the ground to manning hotlines to overseeing the complicated logistics of the operation. In the press, we exposed the government’s complicity in sexual violence against women, called out activists and political groups for ignoring or even denying the attacks (this isn’t the time for women’s issues, they said), and organized ourselves around an unapologetic feminism dedicated to protecting women and their place within Egypt’s revolution.
Many of us spoke out about our personal experiences with attacks, propelling a national conversation about violence against women which some believe is still having an impact on the work that feminist and women’s groups are doing now. All rights advocacy is currently beleaguered in Egypt, but gender- and women’s-rights advocates say that the media work done at the time broke social taboos in speaking out about sexual violence, pushed the discourse to a more progressive standard and triggered multiple ongoing campaigns and civil-society initiatives on the issue.
I remember, during quiet weeks, looking for examples of women doing the sort of work we were doing: using direct action to save themselves and each other from sexual violence. The closest model I found was the Pink Gang of India, which formed in response to domestic violence and government corruption. There are probably other stories, elsewhere. Perhaps I just haven’t found them. We’ve seen how quickly our own history, after a few moments of media attention, has been forgotten. People remember the mob attacks, but they mostly do not know about the women who resisted them.
Even as it was happening, I knew that I would want to share the story of OpAntiSH. I knew that it carried a trove of insights and experiences that women in other parts of the world might draw from: about organizing and resisting in emergencies; about fear; about dealing with men who wanted to help—those who were real allies and those who were there for the wrong reasons; about calling out political movements (in this case, certain supposedly progressive allies in the Egyptian revolution) for their sexism, without betraying the larger cause.
I started trying to write about it almost as soon as it was over. Trauma and a paralyzing sense of defeat got in the way—the end of OpAntiSH came at the same time as the end of any hope for Egypt’s revolution and the beginning of the bloody repression we are still living with today. The task also felt enormous—how to write about a history so recent, that involved so many people, many that I still know and care about, about something so sensitive and personal—that was also so public and political?
I began by interviewing other OpAntiSH organizers. As I listened to the recordings months later, I had the realization, sudden and obvious, that the story is not about violence and trauma and rape. It is about fighting back.
The women and men I spoke with didn’t shy away from the dark terror of those nights, of the violence that happened to them or that they witnessed. But they also said they were grateful that, in the face of such darkness, they were able to do something. “I think if there hadn’t been something that I could do, if I’d had to stay home and keep hearing about the attacks night after night, I would have lost my mind,” one organizer said.
I wonder how many women who’ve been sharing their stories using #MeToo are looking to take more direct, offensive action on any of the different battlegrounds we face—at work, at home, on the streets.
Many of the women in OpAntiSH were survivors of those specific mob assaults themselves. The whole movement was built on women’s shifting roles from victim/survivor to organizer/actor, or perhaps more accurately, occupying both at the same time. This was not a neat or perfect experience—no matter how much the group tried to fight it, there was still a pressure, both internal and implied, to be “brave.” We felt a need to keep going, even when sometimes we weren’t able to.
There are great differences between the fight waged by OpAntiSH and the one happening now in the aftermath of Weinstein. With OpAntiSH, women sidestepped the state and took matters into their own hands. Circumstances demanded and allowed for that kind of resistance: it was a time of revolution; people were in the habit of coming together quickly and taking direct action.
The Weinstein exposé and the flood of cases which followed have largely led women to pursue change through institutions—the courts, the media, professional syndicates. And to some degree it’s working. There have been consequences for several powerful men, and the country has been consumed with discussions of sexual harassment and assault.
But both movements began when women exposed the crimes committed against them, at risk to their reputations and even their personal safety. When narrative is grabbed by the voiceless, it has the ability to grow with a pace and breadth that is startling and exciting and unknowable. Didn’t the Arab revolutions themselves show us that?
The importance of the story of OpAntiSH and others like it—stories of extreme female agency—isn’t simply its utility as a model to be replicated or copied. Nor is it only about offering inspiration for women looking to take radical action—although that can be crucial.
What we lose when we don’t know these histories is the opportunity and the ability to move toward feminist thinking and practice aimed at real global and systemic change and to shake the systems that disadvantage us all. We’re more likely to repeat old mistakes and patterns of exclusion, ones that are set by the same neocolonial and racist power dynamics that we’re ultimately aiming to dismantle. We end up with movements that are more easily divided and coopted, and we limit our imaginations.
What is happening because women spoke out against Weinstein and the powerful, silencing machinery behind him is extraordinary, and its potential is endless. Now we need to talk not only about the ways in which we are in danger, but also about the ways in which we resist, alone or together.