For a really long time I told people I was almost raped so I could almost talk about it. I couldn’t bring myself to say it. To admit that one night while walking home, a man had grabbed me and in the space of fifteen minutes, changed my life forever. I didn’t even scream while it was happening. I remember opening my mouth and wondering why nothing was coming out.
I was working on a Greek Island that summer and the only person I told the full truth to was the police officer I reported it to the next day. It was a painful conversation using broken English to determine exactly how a stranger had penetrated me and how long he had done it for. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to explain to a male police officer, who doesn’t really speak English, how a man slipped his fingers in and out of you while holding you down, before managing to position your struggling body into the right place so he could slip inside you, but it is an agonising process. Hand gestures were involved, a picture was drawn at one point, the police officer slowly burned a brighter shade of red and I sat in a grey room on a Greek island, the sound of the sea breaking on the rocks below me while something inside me slowly began to break away.
In the ruin of rape it is always the females that stand in the rubble while the men live blissfully unaffected.
It took me over a decade to tell the full story of what had happened that night because the world doesn’t make it easy for women to talk about rape. Somehow it is your fault. Your outfit choices are called into question. You are always asked why you were walking alone. Women are bullied, condemned, slut shamed and manipulated. Most commonly they are called liars. If you sit at the intersections of culture, religion, and colour, the repercussions of speaking about sexual assault become even greater, often consequences are devastating. In the ruin of rape it is always the females that stand in the rubble while the men live blissfully unaffected.
The story of Ahmed Bassem Zaki in Cairo, currently accused of raping, assaulting, and harassing over 100 women and girls, many of whom were underage, is a prime example of just how free you can be if you’re a man in this world. When the society you live in thrives on silence, and when the culture feeds its women a diet of shame, and when the institutions don’t take assault allegations seriously, you create a perfect storm; crime happens, women are ashamed, and the silence becomes thicker and thicker. The men we consider ‘the good guys’ consolidate that silence as they awkwardly stumble out of the room whenever the word rape is dropped, too uncomfortable to endure the conversation, as always, leaving it up to the women to discuss and deal with.
The men we consider ‘the good guys’ consolidate that silence as they awkwardly stumble out of the room whenever the word rape is dropped, too uncomfortable to endure the conversation, as always, leaving it up to the women to discuss and deal with.
And that’s exactly what women in Cairo are doing. Failed by the systems that are supposed to support them, they are taking matters into their own hands and sharing their stories, one by one calling out Zaki with a plethora of voicenotes, screenshots, and evidence against him. They’re creating platforms, naming and shaming, galvanising support from across the globe, collectively forcing academic institutions to take action against Zaki and urging the law to do what it’s supposed to: provide justice.
The silence is breaking because these women are at breaking point, and it’s taken over one hundred of them to do it. God forbid, we ever believe one woman’s rape story; we prefer to have our victims en masse. #MeToo tells us that if you want to be taken seriously when it comes to sexual assault, you have to have a legion of women behind you chanting the same story and only then will you be listened to. It’s a chilling reminder of how unequal the playing field is, but in the wake of the Zaki allegations, it’s also a reminder that the field can be tipped.
When society thrives on silence, and when the culture feeds its women a diet of shame, and when the institutions don’t take assault allegations seriously, you create a perfect storm; crime happens, women are ashamed, and the silence becomes thicker and thicker.
Egypt is at its tipping point, currently sitting on the precipice of change. There is the hope of a different reality shimmering on the horizon, but it can’t get there without help. A substantial effort is required from both men and women, which means everyone is needed in this fight. For the women that means, unfortunately, more work. We must band together and support one another. We must gather courage and keep telling the difficult, uncomfortable and downright traumatic stories; we have to keep talking. The bad behaviour of men happens in the silence of women and if we can keep methodically breaking that silence, we can change things. For the men, it means it’s time to play your part and start heavy lifting. Men must hold their own gender to account. They have to support women unquestioningly. They need to be part of the change.
I have been talking about men joining the fight for decades now, but it never seems to resonate, so let me break this down in another way; men, you are the problem. You are not part of it, you are not enabling it, you are in fact the whole entire problem and here’s why. You’ve either raped, coerced, assaulted, or pressured a woman and for obvious reasons that even I won’t deign to go into, you’re a piece of shit. Failing doing any of those things, you have either acted surprised when listening to female stories of violence, turned a blind eye, not called out your friends, shrugged rape off as ‘not your problem’ because you would never do it, centred yourself in stories, ignored female pain, used religion as a shield, sympathised with male predators, said things like ‘let’s just hear his side of the story,’ failed to support reports of rape, or kept entirely tight-lipped on the subject. If you can tick off any one of those things, you are the problem.
The silence that is currently cracking across the country will only have lasting impact if male silence also breaks.
I appreciate that it’s not easy to talk about sexual violence in Cairo. Someone always mentions religion, the word ayb gets thrown around a lot, and everyone likes to believe that good Muslims would never do anything like that. I have enough male cousins who squirm and leave the room when I start talking about this to know how difficult it is to broker the subject but getting raped is no fucking walk in the park either so perhaps it’s time now for the men to get uncomfortable.
The silence that is currently cracking across the country will only have lasting impact if male silence also breaks. We can turn the tide and ensure that this moment is one of real, impactful change, not just a flashpoint in history where some women said something once upon a time. If men can banish their bro code, testify against their friends, and listen to women we can create our own perfect storm; one in which rapists and sexual predators are tried, sentenced, and punished. As much as we women want to solve this problem, it’s not ours to fix. This is a male issue and if all those ‘good guys’ find the stories of women being raped so difficult to listen to, I suggest they start doing something about it; it’s time to start talking.
Image: Salma El-Wardany photographed by Edith Whitehead.