Agony & Ecstasy (on fighting sexual harassment at Tahrir)

Yes, you can feel them both simultaneously; agony & ecstasy! It’s been a while since I was last reminded with that fact, but today it hit me once again. I’ll try to explain as much as language can help.

Today, was my 1st day as the man responsible for operations for “Tahrir Bodyguard”. In case you haven’t heard of Tahrir Bodyguard, it’s an initiative of collective efforts to protect female demonstrators at Tahrir from getting sexually harassed. Like many similar movements, this is a people’s initiative; no political parties are behind it, it’s self-funded, & it started as a 1-woman-show. All respect to that lady who dipped into her savings, to buy gear for volunteers, and start a social media frenzy about the initiative to recruit volunteers…I salute her!

Yesterday we met with other initiative members & leaders to coordinate efforts, & it was great. We also met with key people in the square’s security committee to get their support, as the initiative started a couple of days ago, & we didn’t get much volunteers due to that. We agreed that we will donate most of our vests & helmets to square security, provided those who get it, will have preventing & fighting sexual harassment as a top priority. It sounded like a fair deal, & we carried out with it. I’ll spare you much of last night’s details, & let’s move to today- or yesterday since it’s past midnight!

I went to the square at 10:30am, 1st shift was 12-6, I was met at the square entrance checkpoint  by some volunteers wearing our vests & helmets, & it felt great. I went around the square, checking security measures, which seemed well-though-of, & well-planned in terms of watch towers, distribution of security personnel…etc.

Our 1st volunteer arrived at 11am, followed by 2 volunteering brothers 30 mins later, & immediately -after providing them with their gear & orientation- our group of 4 started roaming around the square. We were mainly trying our best to spot intentions of harassment by spotting single females, or female small groups, & reading the body language of those around them. There were not much room for action at the time, but we managed to pro-actively prevent a few cases before they took place.

After Friday prayers, we continued our patrolling, and our group increased in size with another volunteer. Most of the time, we were asked by people if we were “square security” – as we were in similar clothes- but when our reply was that we are a “sexual harassment prevention group”, people either praised us, prayed for us, or started asking questions about which party we belong to…etc. yet, there was a sense of relief extremely apparent, by most females who realized what we do when they asked, or overheard the conversation….it was ecstatic! We always checked on the other “anti-harassment” groups, & if they needed any help/support.

By 4pm, our little group of 5 had already-pro actively-prevented about 10-11 incidents from taking place, and helped many groups of ladies move comfortably in masses , by surrounding them, joining arms, and making way for them, and rescued a couple of groups from mass harassment. As the crowds grew larger, it was harder to keep up with the same pace, and sometimes we had to make a decision between arresting a molester we just spotted, or help those 2 girls who were screaming as they got harassed, to get out of the crowd…tough choice, but we immediately chose the 2nd one in that case. I must add that those volunteers were extremely reliable, & passionate, as if defending their own flesh & blood; that sense of ownership, made it possible for us to crack down any situation we were put through, have each others backs as if we’re family, and many molesters who felt our determination backed off immediately in cases of mass harassment. They were individuals who belonged to no party or political movement, and wanted to make a difference for their country, & they did, even if for just a few hours so far…but they did.

While we were saving those 2 girls, one of our volunteers- who will have an exam this morning, pray for him- had his brand new 4000 L.E phone snatched, as it was picked out of his pockets while all focus was on saving the victims. He didn’t regret for a second what he did, but wondered what he’d tell his parents, as he didn’t tell them he’ll be at Tahrir. He went off with our 5th volunteer to file a police report, to try & get his phone back. Our group shrank to 3, but was determined to continue. We caught a molester, & threw him out of the square, after he received what he deserved for sure! In many cases, we also intervened to resolve quarrels between different people, before it turned into fights, which would be a golden opportunity for molesters to practice their favourite activity; sexual harassment.

One of our volunteers was already sick & had threw up during the day, but still insisted on staying for some hours & help. But as he started feeling more I’ll, the 2 brothers had left around 6-30 maybe, & the night shift volunteers didn’t show up, the other volunteer went back to some security point, & BAM…back to scratch…all by myself! Determined to carry on, I went to the “central security operations tent” asking to be granted some volunteers to carry on until more of ours had arrived. Instead, I was asked to join a “security force” in securing one of the stages! Over time, I had already -through observation- developed a conviction, that those security volunteers who had received our vests & helmets as donations, didn’t really have fighting sexual harassment as a top priority. I argued that we need a focused group on harassment solely,but was told that it’s being taken care of by security personnel. Saved by the “ringtone”, my phone rang, & it was 2 friends/colleagues who surprised me by saying they’re in Tahrir, they’re aware of what I’m doing, & want to volunteer. Me with them, geared them up, briefed them, then we started patrolling, & another volunteer joined.

We heard of an incident by Omar Makram, but by the time we got there, it was resolved, and molester was detained. We noticed some abnormal activity by a stage & a rush of “helmets/security personnel” to the site. We got there thinking it’s a mass harassment, and cleared a safe area to where we thought the victim would be, but no one was there, & we couldn’t get what was happening. After we found out it’s a “false alarm” & started patrolling again by the Qasr ElNil traffic light, some people were crying at us for help, we rushed to them, & found out that during the stamped a lady had fallen down & broke her leg. No ambulance cars were present anywhere near the place, and no security personnel. I called the number we had for ambulance around, but no answer came, so we ran to the “Qasr AlDobara church”, where ambulance vehicles were stationed, informed them, & asked for a vehicle to come with us. An argument started between the supervisor & the driver he assigned, as the driver didn’t want to go inside the square, “fearing for his safety” at the entrance. We explained we’d lead the way, & clear any obstacles, including wired-fences, security personnel, people, and merchant carts/stands. The supervisor assigned another driver, and we started running in front of the vehicle, leading it inside, & clearing the way. It was not a walk in the park, but we did it in a record time! Yet, by the time we got there, they had already transported the broken-legged-lady into a car to a hospital. However, we found another patient who was wounded in the head, and the ambulance took him in. We enquired about how it happened, and he pointed at an area between the Qasr ElNil bridge, and the League of Arab Nations, and there was a mass of people-many helmets involed- we rushed to it, before we could catch a breath, & as we got closer, we were told by bystanders that a female is being harassed. We forced our way through, she was in a corner, with a mass around her, some were security personnel, some were other anti-harassment groups in their white T-shirts, and many others, who wore regular outfits. The air was filled with intensity, ,and it looked chaotic. We struggled to secure her & clear way for her, with the help of other security personnel, there was maybe 40 of us, and we were receiving blows by melee weapons from different directions, if it wasn’t for my helmet, I think I’d be lying in some ICU unit by now! Nonetheless, we -all involved security volunteers- cleared the way for her, and cleared her out of site, into an ambulance vehicle with a couple of her male friends escorting her. We had to set 2 cordons to prevent anyone from following the ambulance vehicle. Many were mad at us, accusing us of hitting them while they were trying to help, some tried to find out where the vehicle was taking her, others accused us of molesting the victim ourselves; needless to say, that was outrageous! However, we responded as wisely as possible, and spoke our way out of it without further damage. The girl was badly molested, but was saved from rape. One of my friends/our volunteers was lost in the midst of it all, we looked around and found him, & he was stabbed in the arm. Fortunately, it was not a deep wound.

We went into a field hospital to sterelize it. As we stood there waiting for him, a teen who had interacted with me many times since last night, when I was setting our gear up, asked me to remove my vest. When I asked why, to my shock he answered: “some people in vests have molested girls, & there’s an uproar about it here. I know you’re a good guy, & I don’t want anyone hurting you!”.  That struck me like a 1000 lightening bolts simultaneously. I couldn’t believe it, but I saw genuineness in his eyes, so I removed my vest, and asked my friends to do so. I was baffled! Then I started recalling how calls from a stage were asking people to volunteer, and all they needed to do was to leave their IDs in return for a vest & a helmet – with the immediate credibility that came along- & they were assigned to certain spots, or asked to patrol. This I say, was a very uneducated decision/approach by whoever called for it. Realizing that such an incident can blow away all efforts exerted by “Tahrir Bodyguard” today, jeopardize our credibility, and pave the way for a series of organized unstoppable attacks of harassment, I went to leaders of different parties & groups responsible for securing the square, informing them of the breach we have, & discussing different approaches as to how we can rectify this costly mistake. In the midst of it, I found out the female who was molested by “helmets” was actually an anti-sexual-harassment activist, who belonged to one of the white T-shirt groups!

Dots were connecting in my mind; the fake assault by the stage was a distraction, this was a “set-up”! It was no coincidence that attacking those activists took place some minutes later! I found the victim with her group, and as I listened to her account of what took place, I became agonistic; over what happened to her, over the fact that square breached to that extent, and the fact that despite our best efforts, we can’t pro actively save everyone! Agony made me frantic, & while I was trying to find a way to cool down, I realized one of the attackers was detained in a tent next to me. I felt a sudden rush to go & break every bone of his body, or maybe strip him, tie him to a pole, & insert a stick into his anus, & leave him like that! With every passing moment, I felt my rage intensifying, & the prospect of me doing any of those things growing! Therefore, as my friends had to leave, since they have work tomorrow, I decided to move away from my place before I do anything I might regret later on.

As I roamed around, I could feel the heat coming out of my body & my head increasing, I remembered again what it feels like to have blood “boiling up your head”. I walked around solo, feeling that I’m ready to kill. I tried shaking the feeling off, but it didn’t go away. Knowing how cyclonic I could become with such a state-of-mind…I had to leave the square!

I was choked up, agonized, & frantic at the same time! My eyes started tearing up, yet, I couldn’t cry. Last time this has happened, was when I found out my mom had cancer 3 yrs ago! Yes, what happened was to me as painful as finding out my own mom had cancer! The fact that we couldn’t save everyone, especially after I managed to check twitter, to find out others were harassed too, made me belittle our efforts for a while, & think of it as trivial; it killed me. However, I read other female accounts, they stated they felt as safe in Tahrir as they did during the 18-day-period for the 1st time in ages. Others stated that if it wasn’t for the Tahrir BodyGuard, along with other anti-harassment-movements efforts, things could’ve turned really hideous on a harassment level. This has restored my faith in the outcome of our efforts.

We’re not giving up; more volunteers will be recruited, we’ll be better-equipped, and more organized, and will keep enhancing & fine-tuning, until we live to see the day where no harassment ever takes place inside Tahrir, and hopefully, no where else as well!

I know I might die before I see that day, but isn’t that what a “vision” is?

Tomorrow we – Tahrir BodyGuards- return to the square to continue carrying out our civic duty in protecting our fellow sisters, with a determination to save many more, & teach more molesters unforgettable lessons.

Pray for us to succeed…Amen!

Mahmoud M Othman
Cairo
December 1st

8 thoughts on “Agony & Ecstasy (on fighting sexual harassment at Tahrir)

  1. I believe what you and others like you are doing is Amazing. Maybe you couldn’t save everyone, but the ones you did save were spared the trauma, physical and psychological damage such attacks bring about.You’r a hero. Thank you for this.

    I would also like to volunteer. Can you let me know how I can do that? I’m a girl, so no worries about me being a covert sexual predator. :)

    • Thanks for your kind words Nour. You’re definitely more than welcome to join us. We have a meeting tomorrow with other initiatives & movements on the same topic. We’ll discuss different roles. Please drop us an email to Tahrir.bodyguard@gmail.com & provide your contact details. Thanks again for your interest & concern.

  2. for someone who lives on the opposite side of the planet, this is an impressing tale. Why so much haressment? And I know the issue repeats from Egypt through Gaza to Tunisia .. twitter confirms it every day.

    Are these guys, the molesters, politically motivated destroyers of popular movement? are they sexually repressed males who take advantage of mass concentrations, because they have nobody to make love with? do you lack freedom that sexual revolution (apparently looked upon as devil’s work by muslims, but actually a historical blessing for individual freedom) brought to western societies? what means sexuality in arab-spring countries today, is it positively looked upon as part of self realisation, or still negative as tentation and sin?

    I feel you have an idealistic approach, to help people in danger. bless you

  3. well done! I am proud of Egyptian men. I would like to make you an interview for an European website; please answer to my email
    Best regards and keep working for women!

  4. This is such an amazing story and such an amazing initiative!! I salute your bravery and courage along with such love and emotion for your country. You guys are really fighting hard to make it better for all it’s citizens. Your efforts are truly not in vain! Writing here from India and recalling the words of the famous Mahatma Gandhi “Be the change you want to see in the world”. Tahrir Bodyguards are truly one of the forces of change. May good luck continue to be with you and your team as you continue to fight to make a positive impact.

  5. Pingback: Sexual assault during protests at the Tahrirplein | Women of the world

  6. Very nice post. I just stumbled upon your blog and wanted to say
    that I have really enjoyed browsing your blog posts. In any case I’ll be subscribing to your feed and I hope you write again soon!

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