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.1
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 young, homeless, pregnant 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 left wing 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.