Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Tahrir's bodyguards fight to 'cure Egypt's disease'

By Tim Hume, for CNN
updated 10:31 PM EST, Tue March 5, 2013
Members of Tahrir Bodyguard demonstrate in a protest demanding an end to sexual violence in Egypt. Members of Tahrir Bodyguard demonstrate in a protest demanding an end to sexual violence in Egypt.
HIDE CAPTION
Stopping sexual assault in Tahrir Square
Intervening and training
Strength in numbers
The protectors of Tahrir
Keeping a watchful eye
A volatile environment
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Tahrir Bodyguard is a group dedicated to preventing assaults on women in Egypt
  • Women have been the targets of mob sexual assaults during demonstrations
  • The group rescues women from assaults when they occur and teaches self-defense classes

(CNN) -- Soraya Bahgat, a Cairo-based HR executive and postgraduate student, was on her way to join Tahrir Square protests on November 25 when an unwelcome thought stopped her in her tracks.

Mobs in the square had sexually assaulted women protesters there a week earlier, and reports of such incidents had become common enough for her to fear a repeat occurrence.

"A panic attack gripped me and prevented me from going because I thought no woman should go through this," said the 29-year-old.

"It was almost two years since the Lara Logan incident," she said, referring to the harrowing sexual attack on the CBS correspondent by a mob in Tahrir Square.

"I didn't understand what else we needed before collective action was taken to prevent these assaults. I felt that it was time to step up and do something about it."

We have a disease we need to cure
Soraya Bahgat, Tahrir Bodyguard founder

Instead of going to Tahrir -- where, according to local reports, three women were sexually assaulted among the crowds that day -- she took to Twitter and started an account, Tahrir Bodyguard, encouraging a "collective effort to promote the safety of women protesters."

The response, she said, was "overwhelming."

Today Tahrir Bodyguard has a database of 200 volunteers, who patrol the square during mass demonstrations, recognizable in high-visibility helmets and vests, intervening to halt the attacks on women that have blighted Egypt's revolution and its aftermath.

In a recent mass demonstration on January 25, for example, 25 sexual assaults were reported on women in the square. Tahrir Bodyguard intervened to rescue the victims of 10 attacks.

Read also: Lebanese women take on judges who call rape a "marital right"

While the group consisted of men and women, Bahgat said it was generally men who intervened when an assault was detected, to prevent women bodyguards from being sexually assaulted themselves.

The group also organizes free self-defense classes for women.

Bahgat described Tahrir Bodyguard as "a story of what an individual with a computer and a Twitter account can start," said Bahgat. "It gives me faith when I see these young boys and knowing they're going to be potentially hurt to protect a woman and save her from sexual assault."

I looked her in the eyes and said 'I'm your only chance to get out of this crowd.' Then I turned around and gave her my back to climb on to. When I felt her hands were catching, I told the crew, 'Let's move'
Mark Beshara, Tahrir Bodyguard volunteer

One of the men involved in the group is 27-year-old petroleum company employee Mark Beshara, who has patrolled Tahrir on seven occasions, intervening to stop 15 assaults and being injured in the process.

He became involved in the group after being haunted by the memory of witnessing men in the crowd assaulting a woman in the square in November.

"It was very noisy and about 50 or 60 people were surrounding something. At first I thought they were catching a thief or there was a fight," he told CNN. "Then someone told me 'There's a poor girl in there'."

The size of the crowd made it impossible to intervene alone, he said. "On my own I can't help at all. If I was in a team I would be able to help her."

Read also: The Yemeni "dictionary men" recall the day Muhammad Ali came to town

When he heard of Tahrir Bodyguard, he didn't hesitate to become involved. The group has quickly learned what works in breaking up the assaults, he said.

When trying to help a woman escape, he said, "the most important thing is you have to get her trust."

"She's in a hysterical state, standing there in cut clothes, and being harmed. First you have to tell her several times your name and that you're there to protect her."

Recounting a recent intervention by his group, he said the woman was too traumatized and disoriented by what was occurring to register the group's presence.

"I looked her in the eyes and said 'I'm your only chance to get out of this crowd.' Then I turned around and gave her my back to climb on to. When I felt her hands were catching, I told the crew, 'Let's move.'"

Sexual harassment is a longstanding problem in Egypt, said Bahgat.

According to a 2008 survey of 1,010 women conducted by the Egyptian Center for Women's rights, 83% of Egyptian women and 98% of foreign women there have been sexually harassed.

Activists have developed a system to track and map incidents of harassment through mobile phones, in an effort to challenge the social acceptability of harassment.

But Bahgat said the mob assaults of women that had been occurring during protests since the revolution, some of which have reportedly included bladed weapons, were something "entirely new."

Read also: Tackling racism in Lebanon

The ones behind these attacks are not the true Egyptians
Soraya Bahgat, Tahrir Bodyguard founder

Exactly why the assaults were happening was "the billion dollar question," she said. Many, like Beshara, are of the opinion that the assaults are likely premeditated and politically motivated to discredit protesters and scare off women from joining the demonstrations.

But Bahgat said her focus was not speculating on the causes of the attacks, but stopping them. "We focus on the fact we have a disease we need to cure."

She said the group's efforts and media attention seemed to be raising awareness of the problem and helping to change attitudes towards women.

"It takes a long time though," she said. "Obviously a person who thinks this is okay, this isn't something they just decided to do today."

"But they definitely realize now that there are people who will stand up against what they are doing, there are people who will do everything necessary to rescue women from this horror."

Many Egyptians were worried the assaults were casting their country in a bad light, she said.

"But the ones behind these attacks are not the true Egyptians," she said. "The true Egyptian man is the man who took off his traditional jellabeya to give it to a girl who had just been assaulted and was stripped naked. The true Egyptians are the men who volunteer with us and get emotionally involved in getting women out of these situations."

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 10:12 PM EDT, Wed October 8, 2014
Managing over 2 million people during the Hajj takes some serious technology.
updated 2:11 AM EDT, Tue October 7, 2014
More needs to be done so women from Saudi Arabia can become world champions in sports.
updated 9:09 AM EDT, Mon October 6, 2014
Is nothing sacred? How tech allows narcissism to run riot.
From the waters of the Persian Gulf a new mega museum is emerging.
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Where better to start a record-breaking solar powered flight than the desert?
updated 10:27 AM EDT, Wed September 24, 2014
Ahmed Eldin is the 18-year-old behind the prog-rock band's new album cover. Shine on you crazy diamond.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed September 17, 2014
The Humans of New York photo project exposes the hopes and fears of ordinary people in Iraq and Jordan.
updated 10:06 PM EDT, Tue September 9, 2014
Dubai's appetite for construction continues with multi-billion dollar boost to build the world's largest airport.
updated 11:02 PM EDT, Mon September 8, 2014
The UAE is becoming a hub for plastic surgery with more Emiratis going under the knife each year.
updated 7:20 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Meet Erdal Inci, a digital artist from Turkey who is transforming the medium.
updated 9:39 AM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Iran is pumping billions of dollars into a scheme to save a lake. What's so important about it?
ADVERTISEMENT