Challenge sexual violence everywhere

By Kate Harris

One of the lessons we have learned from the last few years is that many “progressive” people hold reactionary ideas about women. Worse than this, people who hold some socialist ideas do not always follow this through in terms of the way they treat the women around them.

A particularly shocking example of sexist violence in an activist movement has been the epidemic of sexual assaults and harassment in Tahrir Square, Cairo. Extreme violence against women has been a threat or reality for many women revolutionaries.

The Guardian reported that on the day Morsi was ousted (3 July 2013) there were more than 80 incidents of sexual assault and harassment in the square. They also reported the endemic nature of this violence — over 99% of Egyptian women surveyed by the UN said they had been sexually harassed.

Self-organised groups have been set up to protect women protesters, including Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment (Opantish) and Tahrir Bodyguard. Hannah Elsisi, reporting from Cairo for the International Socialist Network, has been working with Opantish:

“I started my shift with Opantish at around 7:30 last night. We did not wrap up until after 3 in the morning. We received 46 reports of cases of mob sexual assault in and around Tahrir. We were able to intervene in around half, in coordination with other groups such as Tahrir Bodyguard. Some attacks saw the use of blades and sticks. One case had to go to hospital and undergo surgery. Several others needed medical attention. Some volunteers were wounded. The square became undeniably unsafe for women.”

Elsisi concludes that, “Regardless of the nature of the revolution’s next foe, I am certain that the fight against sexual violence and sexism must be at the heart of the larger struggle for freedom.”

But it’s not just Egyptian activists who have these problems, and it’s important not to be smug about the British left. In recent years we have also seen several crises, with division on the left on the key issue of sexual violence.

We have had arguments about what our positions and slogans regarding alleged rapist Julian Assange should be. We’ve had to deal with members of our movement sexually assaulting comrades.

At Occupy Glasgow, a woman was gang raped and the organisers decided not to go to the police at first because it would reflect badly on the occupation.

In the SWP we have seen swathes of reactionary ideas and practice around the dismissal of the case of a young, female (ex-)party member brought against a senior, male party member, who allegedly raped her, as well as around a separate sexual harassment case.

Sexual predators are opportunistic. Because of the absence of formal security forces in many public occupations, they perhaps feel they can get away with it and turn up specifically to those places to violate women.

That is what many are saying regarding “mob attacks” in Tahrir Square. No doubt those who gang raped a woman at Occupy Glasgow assumed they could get away with it.

Sexual predators exist across society, in the ruling class as well as the working class, with high profile leftwing men being just as likely (or not) as anyone else to be sexually predatory or violent.

An entrenched culture of victim blaming across society makes it incredibly difficult to deal with sexual violence. Instead of asking “How do we stop the perpetrators?” people ask, “Why them? What were they wearing? Had they been drinking? Were they being ‘sensible’?”

This is seen among activists in Tahrir Square, it is seen in the SWP and it was seen at Occupy Glasgow. Further, those who want to do something to stop their attacker repeating their actions are seen as being difficult, obstinate, inconveniencing others. Worse, they are sometimes attacked for making the left look bad, for “dividing” the left, or even accused of being spies who are purposefully trying to bring down leftwing movements.

It’s an extreme form of victim blaming when a man says, in front of a camera, “It’s not a good habit. It’s wrong. But they lead us to do this. From the way they dress. From the way they walk. Everything. They push Egyptian men to do this.”

When other activists say, to be a “decent” girl, you should shut up and leave it out, they are minimising sexual assault. It’s victim blaming to tell the women who say Julian Assange raped them that they are CIA agents and were a “honey trap” to a weak man who couldn’t help himself. Victim blaming partly caused the vile cover-up that was attempted by senior members of Occupy Glasgow.

Women (and others) who are concerned about the violence from their political colleagues are not “creeping feminists” as some senior members of the SWP have said (not that being a feminist is a bad thing). They are class warriors, cleaning up our movement so it is fit for purpose for the entire class, including women.

As Hannah Elsisi rightly says, we need to put challenging violence against women at the heart of our work and the “struggle for freedom”. Not only is it something to be challenged in its own right, but also women make up a majority of the working class, and there can be no real liberation of our class without women’s liberation.

Reactionary attitudes towards women, victim blaming and sexual harassment and assault must be robustly fought and eradicated from our movement.

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About womensfightback17

Women’s Fightback is a socialist feminist paper and blog produced by members and supporters of the socialist group Workers' Liberty. Workers’ Liberty is a revolutionary socialist organisation fighting as part of the labour and student movements, and in campaigns, for a socialist alternative to capitalism, based on common ownership and democracy.

One comment

  1. Your comment about Occupy Glasgow is incorrect. The survivor was supported by 2 other women, to report as soon as she disclosed to them. Also, mentioning specifics about her physicality could make her identifiable in videos still available online, please remove this, the gutter press printing this is one thing, but not on a feminist blog. [Done this. WF]

    However the attitudes by participants in the occupation was utterly vile throughout, from victim blaming to denial that the survivor was an “occupier”, which she was, she was as involved as any of it. It was obvious they were just trying to distance themselves. The culture of the camp was one that was welcoming to all forms of misogynist behaviour, Otherwise I agree fully with all points raised in your article, I myself have found the left to be in some cases more of a dangerous organisational space than other organisational spaces I inhabit that are deemed sexist and uber masculine. “those who want to do something to stop their attacker repeating their actions are seen as being difficult, obstinate, inconveniencing others. Worse, they are sometimes attacked for making the left look bad, for “dividing” the left, or even accused of being spies who are purposefully trying to bring down leftwing movements.” –
    I could not agree more, I have pretty much left the left for this reason, the bullying and berating of anyone who dare rock the boat by drawing attention to elephants in the room is a lot to bear. I have written about my experience in Occupy Glasgow, where I was accused of being a state plant, a spy for the SSP, a mossad agent (no shit), a shit stirrer, a bitch, a troublemaker,a feminzazi, an agent provocateur, a PC nutter, and several other sexist conspiratorial and ableist things for stating my feminist principles, and attempting to make the space safe.
    I was harassed, rumours spread about me that I had “hacked” information about one man’s children, threatened with police, and even had thinly veiled death threats, one activist had lots of strangers from the internet and truther movement harass me online and it culminated in my tent being firebombed (i’m not saying it’s connected..but..).
    Some of that bullying from 2 years ago has continued on social media to this day, because I suggested it may be the shared responsibility of the group that gang rapists operated within our space. That we shared that responsibility and owed that responsibility to the survivor.
    I took part in a feminist action with other anti-rape activists against the SWP this year,during which we were grabbed and touched without our consent and it was dubbed “a set up for attention” by Occupy Glasgow people.
    Immediately after the rape happened one of the main guys said “This is a PR disaster”.
    This summed up a lot (but not all) participants views. The disregard chilled me to the bone. I brought up the issue of safer spaces daily, and was dubbed a control freak for doing so. Even after the rape there was still massive resistance to having a women and children only space. And two of the main guys decided to host a party, encouraging people to bring alcohol & drugs to the first night of the Kelvingrove camp.
    It sounds absurd to think how dangerous it was. That night another female steward and I were verbally abused by 2 men. ” men who had been “offsited” democratically previously, but overruled by one man who decided he was in a leadership role.
    Now 2 years later looking back, I do not know why I put myself through it, and I still get enraged to think that if only they had listened, maybe people would have been kept safe. I’m not sure if I was stupidly optimistic before the rape and triggered afterwards, but my own shame and guilt for not trying hard enough will always stay with me. Nowadays I would not hesitate to just call the police in many of the situations I witnessed,(despite my distrust of the police) but was discouraged from doing so within the occupation. I made the mistake of staying there, and my advice to any woman in an organisation like this would be to leave immediately. Critique from outside and support other women when they leave. Create women only political organising groups- but do not go back- It is not worth your soul.

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