Essay: Why Do They Still Hate Us?

Egypt's terrorism against women

Caption: December 2011, “In one video that has in the days since it was shot come to symbolize the abuse, army officers were shown dragging a woman by her black robe, worn by conservative Muslims, as she lay on the ground, revealing her blue bra. Then she was repeatedly kicked and clubbed. The image has gone viral on the Internet.” See the Reuters article in the footnotes for more information. We do not know the name of the activist because her family have silenced her. They are ashamed that they the world saw her stripped to her bra. Picture: Reuters)

It is a fuck-this-shit moment for Egyptian women. And the rage and reckoning are the fuel of revolution. Not a cis-gender heterosexual dick-swinging revolution. We already had one of those almost 10 years ago.

A feminist revolution.

It is the rage and reckoning of women and girls liberating themselves from a shame they had learned to swallow for so long their souls were coming apart at the seams from the pressure of silence.

In a country where protests are banned, women have poured courage into the streets of social media. The virtual world is not any less real than the “real world.” It is where saying “I count” and finding each other builds the solidarity that germinates into the direct action of feet on the ground.

Where once the chant of street protests was “The people demand the fall of the regime,” reverberating across Egyptian squares, bouncing off balconies, and captivating the world in 2011, the feminist revolution has begun with the even more subversive “We demand an end to this shit. Fuck the patriarchy,” targeting as it does not just the State - which oppresses everyone - but also demanding a reckoning with the Street and the Home, which together with the State oppress women.

That’s effectively what the countless testimonies of rape, sexual assault, incest and child abuse that have poured out of women and girls have rendered: a holding to account of hundreds of men whose names, numbers and screenshot of messages women have posted and exchanged as if in a stock market of sexual predators, warning other women, posting pictures on social media with a big red X across a man’s face and the word RAPIST written over it.

And the men panicked. The men in the State, the Street, and the Home. And so the State swooped in to save them by trying to terrorize women once again into silence. In recent weeks, authorities have detained witnesses and people who campaigned for the prosecution of several accused rapists, including some who offered evidence in a case involving at least six wealthy young men accused of gang raping a young woman in a Cairo hotel in 2014.

It is a form of terrorism against women. The State, the Street, and the Home can all see the power of a feminist revolution. This moment is one of not just reckoning but also of clarity, a test that many men are failing. Men of the left, men of the Muslim Brotherhood, men who oppose the regime can all understand how the regime hurts them. But those same men refuse to see how they themselves hurt us, refuse to see their complicity in the Trifecta of Misogyny. And so what they think of as a revolution will forever remain the attempt by one group of men to enjoy the power that another group of men has, i.e. cishet dick swinging.

A friend tells me she can’t sleep from the fuckery and injustice.

“Our male friends turned out to be pieces of shit. Rapists and rape apologists. None of the men I know support us. Just gay men do,” she told me.

Women and queer people: the feminist revolution is the wrecking ball of the cishet dick swinging contests. Women and queer people see how many tentacles of the octopus called patriarchy ensnare them (See the Welcome to FEMINIST GIANT Newsletter).

The Egyptian regime is well-versed in crushing revolutions and is headed by a fascist fuck who is the living embodiment of patriarchy, ex-army chief Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi - who fittingly is called “my favourite dictator” by fascist fuck and the American living embodiment of patriarchy, Donald Trump. The regime understands the power that women and girls have amassed on those social media streets. And it knows the ways the regime can coral the Street and the Home to crush it and keep women in line. Appealing to “morality” and “decency” are its hocus pocus.

In March 2011, less than a month after the January 25, 2011 revolution had forced Egypt’s long-time dictator Hosni Mubarak to step down, the military junta that replaced him ostensibly to “protect the revolution,” detained dozens of male and female activists after it cleared Tahrir Square. Tyrants oppress, beat, and torture all, we know. Yet reserved for female activists were “virginity tests”: rapes disguised as a medical doctor inserting his fingers into the vaginal opening in search of an intact hymen. Sisi, the man who is now the president of Egypt, approved of the sexual assault of female activists.

This is where the soldiers in our regimes and the men on our streets unite: they both sexually assault women to remind us that public space is a male prerogative. Security forces and civilians alike violated women in Tahrir Square.

At the time, I honestly thought there would be another revolution in protest at this outrage. But too many people were reluctant to believe the women and were eager instead to side with the military. After all, why would a country in which families can subject their own daughters to a “virginity test” be outraged that the State did? This is where the soldiers in our regimes and the men in our homes unite. The father of the nation, the father of the virgin. Who owns women’s bodies, really? If the State is Patriarchy, the Home is patriarchy. Big P, small p, it’s still patriarchy to me.

And men of the revolution - be they from the left or the right - have set us back with their insistence that “women’s issues” cannot dominate “revolutionary politics.” Whose revolution? Ah yes, the cishet dick swingers.

And in 2017, Sisi presided over another moral crusade when he carried out the worst anti-LGBTQ crackdown in Egyptian modern history, during which men “accused” of being gay were subjected to anal exams - a form of sexual assault. And again too many cheered because like misogyny, homophobia straddles Patriarchy and patriarchy.

It is a mistake to think that only Islamist movements like the Muslim Brotherhood obsess over morality. Everyone in Egypt does. Nominally secular regimes will often outdo religious conservatives in the “decency” contest. And everyone in between cheers. The lesson is that “respectability politics” has the power to unite military regimes and religious zealots alike because being “respectable” means seizing and taking control and ultimately violating vaginal and anal openings.

Patriarchy, in this case the Egyptian regime, reserves its moral crusades for queer people and women, especially the daughters of the working class, but not the sons of the wealthy. Since April, Egypt has jailed at least nine young mostly working class women and charged them with “violating family values” over videos and selfies they posted on TikTok.

If some lip service in the form of a new law that protects the identity of women who come forward to report sexual violence was paid to some of the more famous cases of rape and sexual assault, it could be argued that it was because many of the women who took to those social media streets to shout “Fuck this shit,” enjoyed many forms of privilege - affluence, access to social media, fluency in English, etc. It was a reminder of the efficacy of the “perfect victim,” or at least the closest approximation to one. Because that concept of good/bad woman is being weaponized against the victim of the gang rape and the witnesses in her case, to slut shame and criminalize as “debauched” the victim and witnesses who are supporting her so that the sons of the wealthy and powerful are exonerated and ultimately so that every rape victim will think twice before speaking let alone reporting.

The system is rigged.

Whatever sympathy any victims of sexual violence had was not afforded to the TikTok women, who were readily slut shamed and derided and of course criminalized.

But they have power of another kind that the regime wants to crush. Some of the women have huge followings on TikTok - one has more than 3 million followers, another has more than one million. Again the power of women’s footsteps on the streets of social media disturbed the regime into action. Much like they will send you to prison for protesting on the street, Egyptian authorities have sentenced several of the TikTok women to prison terms. One of them awaiting trial is a victim of rape. None of the TikTok women are seen as “perfect victims.”

The State: maintains the TikTok women are “bad,” and deserve to be subjected to misogynist morality laws.

The Street: cheers the arrests and the morality laws, which are used mostly against women and LGBTQ people and serve to unite society over the control of women and queer people.

The Home: all of that is done in the name of maintaining the sanctity of the patriarchal family.

The feminist revolution has to cross the class barrier. It has to focus on patriarchy, and not just the criminal justice system. Our revolution must pay attention to all women: working class women, domestic workers, refugee women, disabled women, Muslim and Christian and atheist women, queer women, trans women.

I would like, especially, to see the movement break class and regional barriers. I want it to be seen and heard outside of Cairo. By focusing on patriarchy we focus on something that is much more powerful, lasting and likely to ensure justice. We must reach beyond just the women who are able to go on Twitter and, like me, say, ‘Fuck the patriarchy.’   

When I became a journalist 30 years ago, I quickly learned that victims of rape would not go to the police to report what had happened to them because the police would either shoo them away or rape them because the women were considered “damaged goods anyway.” Rape victims, if they were affluent, went to a psychiatrist in search of ways to not fall apart, to keep stitched tightly those seams of silence which have now burst open in Egypt.

At a feminist gathering in Cairo in 2013 organized by a women’s group I worked with, a lawyer told us that a rape victim who did decide to go to the police could be locked up in a room at the precinct for 24 hours to protect her from her family in case they tried to kill her from shame.

How many rapists must we kill until men stop raping us?

Justice will not be served by a predatory and patriarchal State. That same State which rapes female activists and gay men, that same State which sent its riot police in November 2011 to break my left arm and right hand and to sexually assault me will not serve justice to any of us. Asking a State which has sexually assaulted us to get us justice from the men who sexually assault us is like asking Patriarchy to protect us from patriarchy. Nothing protects us from that system of oppressions which privileges male dominance. The real justice comes from destroying patriarchy.

Throwing men in jail must not be considered a panacea. Accountability cannot be had with just the individual man. It must be had with the entire system - the Trifecta of Misogyny. Patriarchy and patriarchy. We must connect the crimes of the Home - domestic violence, marital rape and female genital mutilation - with the crimes of the Street - street sexual violence and harassment - and clearly call them all crimes against women. 

There is a fierce battle raging in Egypt, and it’s not the one between Islamists and the military rulers, the two factions that dominate coverage of Egypt. The real battle, the one that will determine whether Egypt frees itself of authoritarianism, is between the patriarchy - established and upheld by the State and the Street and the Home - and women and queer people.

In 2012, I wrote an essay called Why Do They Hate Us, in which I insisted that “Our political revolutions will not succeed unless they are accompanied by revolutions of thought — social, sexual, and cultural revolutions that topple the Mubaraks in our minds as well as our bedrooms.” I am so convinced of that, that I turned that essay into my first book Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution.

I have lost count of the number of Egyptian women who have written to me during these weeks of reckoning to tell that my essay politicized them. Several were in their early teens or early twenties when the 2011 revolution happened. There is an unloosening of courage that shifts your world view when you live through a revolution, even if you were not directly involved. They are women who came of age in a country that had said a collective “No!” to a 30-year dictator. They are women who are now saying “No!’ to the dictator on the street corner and the dictator in the bedroom.

I am gearing up to write the follow-up: The Sexual Revolution is Here!

That revolution must bridge the determination to break the barrier of shame and taboo that surrounds sexual violence with a determination to break the barrier of shame and taboo that surround sex and pleasure and desire. We stand no chance of staring down sexual violence unless consent and agency - elements that nestle in the heart of any revolution - are brought out into the open and modeled, argued over, and disagreed upon. A feminist revolution cannot begin and end in pain and violence. There must be joy and pleasure ahead. They are revolutionary goals too.

Other women have written to tell me they are frightened. I make videos in Arabic and English in which I say that revolutions are frightening - it is hard to fight power. I tell them:

You are feminist revolutionaries, We are feminist revolutionaries and we will win.

We will have a reckoning with our culture and religion, with military rulers and Islamists - two sides of one coin. Until that reckoning can happen on the streets of Egypt again, that reckoning is happening on the streets of social media and it will play out against parents, friends and partners.

A gay friend in Cairo whose best male friend raped him after my friend came out to him, told me the feminist reckoning that is happening in Egypt has been triggering to him.

I’m having a hard time with my parents. They are rape apologists and victim blamers. My mom called raising awareness about sexual assault disgusting. And my dad thinks it’s always the victim’s fault. All of this is very triggering and difficult to take in.

That feminist reckoning will trigger those of us who are survivors and will disturb those who are predators. And it is what will eventually free us. All of us. Even the pieces of shits we thought were our friends.



Further readings:

  • Egypt: Gang Rape Witnesses Arrested, Smeared

  • Attacks on Egyptian women protestors spark outrage

  • True or False? What’s Happening with the Fairmont Case:

Mona Eltahawy is a feminist author, commentator and disruptor of patriarchy. Her first book Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution (2015) targeted patriarchy in the Middle East and North Africa and her second The Seven Necessary Sins For Women and Girls (2019) took her disruption worldwide. Her commentary has appeared in media around the world and she makes video essays and writes a newsletter as FEMINIST GIANT.  

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