On January 25, during protests commemorating the two-year anniversary of the revolution that toppled former president Hosni Mubarak, human rights organizations received 19 reports of violent sexual assault. Attackers used blades to cut victims in at least two of these attacks, including on or near their genitals.
Although these attacks were unusually severe, a vast majority of Egyptian women face other forms of sexual harassment every day. A report published in April by the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality shows that 99 percent of Egyptian women have experienced some form of sexual harassment. The most common manifestation of harassment came in the form of touching, with 96 percent of women saying they've experienced it. These figures have risen since 2008, when a similar study reported that 83 percent of women experienced harassment.
"Many people have told us that they feel safer, more confident, and more intimidating to harassers after taking self-defense."
Now, some anti-harassment organizations are beginning to turn to martial arts as a way to help cure Egypt's sexual harassment epidemic.
Tahrir Body Guard, an organization that formed in response to the widespread reports of sexual assault in Tahrir Square, is centered on the belief that women have the right to protest safely in the square just as men do. They have organized anti-harassment patrol groups to rescue and protect women in the square. In February, they began an initiative that aims to help women protect themselves through self-defense, not only in the square, but throughout Cairo. Every other week, Tahrir Body Guard offers a free class for women in Samia Allouba Gym and Fitness Center in Mohandiseen, Cairo. Trainees learn simple techniques that target vulnerable areas and require little strength, such as finger twisting and windpipe striking.
Harassmap is another organization that seeks to end the social acceptability of sexual harassment. It uses online mapping and reporting technology to raise awareness: Women who have experienced harassment can use Harassmap to report details of the incident and receive support. The organization also recommends that women receive self-defense training and lists a number of martial arts studios on its website. Rebecca Chiao, co-founder and project leader of Harassmap, says that self-defense training reduces trauma experienced by victims of sexual harassment. She has noticed a significant increase in the number of self-defense classes available over the past three years. "Many people have told us that they feel safer, more confident, and more intimidating to harassers after taking self-defense," Chiao said.
Later this summer, Harassmap will work with Lina Khalifeh, the founder of a group called SheFighter to organize a public women's self-defense seminar in Cairo. SheFighter is based in Jordan and is the only women's self-defense studio in the Middle East designed for women, by women. Khalifeh founded the organization when she found out that her friend was beaten almost daily by her brother and father, who then confiscated her paycheck. "Arab women face many challenges every day. Men often have a controlling attitude towards women sharing their opinions or even starting their own businesses," Khalifeh says. SheFighter's main goal is to empower women through self-defense skills. Khalifeh has received many emails requesting she open a SheFighter branch in Egypt, as Egyptian women are increasingly eager to acquire these skills.
Researchers in the United States who have studied the psychological effects of self-defense training found that it does tend to empower women. In a review of twenty such quantitative studies, Leanne R. Brecklin of the Department of Criminal Justice at the University of Illinois concludes that self-defense training needs to become a priority of the anti-rape movement in the United States. "Self-defense training can provide an alternative view of women as independent, strong, and capable and may undermine violence against women and gender inequality," she argues . In addition to enhancing rape prevention strategies, self-defense training also provides women with many physical and psychological benefits, such as increased self-esteem, confidence, perceived control, and assertiveness.