Arnold Foda

Revolutionary Ruptures and Continuities: Understanding the Criminalization of Sexual Harassment by the Egyptian Security-State
Political Science
Spring 2019

While a “sexual harassment free-zone” is a prominent narrative of Tahrir Square’s atmosphere during the eighteen days of Egypt’s January 2011 Revolution, this utopian undercurrent for women was shattered by an epidemic of sexual violence, which feminist and human rights groups have labelled the “circles of hell”. During the post-revolutionary period, whether under the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF), the Muslim Brotherhood and the early return of the military regime in 2013, sexual violence has been deployed as a tool to exclude women from the public sphere. The military state-apparatus—under General el-Sisi—justified the use of “virginity tests” in 2011 through a national discourse of morality and security. Three years later however, the current regime—under President el-Sisi—amended sections of the Penal Code to define and criminalize sexual harassment for the first time in Egypt’s legal history. In the same vein, a National Strategy to Combat Violence Against Women was announced in 2015. Given the state’s use of sexual violence during the revolution, why has it undertaken these anti-harassment initiatives? Approaching the Egyptian revolution through a “gender lens” as Nadje Al-Ali posits, my research examines the link between the systemic pattern of sexual violence and alternative discourses concerning gendered bodies in public spaces, which entail novel forms of power and activism. On the one hand, the legal amendments and national strategy would constitute the result of a strengthened feminist movement and revolutionary counter-discourses which have reverted accountability back to the state and its security forces. Nonetheless, viewing the anti-harassment measures as a response by the current regime fails to stress the continued existence of a repressive security-state whereby competing forces have coalesced in their intent to maintain the status quo by (re)producing classed, gendered and racialized boundaries. To address this scholarly gap, my research sheds light on the continuities and ruptures of gender initiatives and the security-state’s policies around sexual violence since the 1990s. Through this critical lens, I am analyzing the law as a continuous attempt by the state and its coercive apparatus to monopolize the gender agenda and target independent dissidents. I hope to illuminate how the amended Penal Code and national strategy, albeit a result of revolutionary efforts, bear historical similarities of expanding police powers through a morally-infused discourse of security threats. This narrative allowed the security-state to justify the “virginity tests” in 2011 and the question of whether the recent anti- harassment initiatives are simply a re-articulation of such a discourse seeks to be unravelled. My research therefore has significant implications for accountability of sexual violence survivors by the Egyptian state and its security forces.