Courage of the vigilante feminists
“I’M sick of being ashamed.” Three days ago, an anti-harassment activist said those words to me in a flat above Cairo’s Tahrir square, as she pulled on her makeshift uniform ready to protect women on the protest lines from being raped in the street.
Only days before, I’d heard exactly the same words from pro-choice organisers in Dublin, where I travelled to report on the feminist fight to legalise abortion in Ireland. I had thought that I was covering two separate stories — so why were two women from different countries and backgrounds repeating the same mantra against fear, and against shame?
From India to Ireland to Egypt, women are on the streets, on the airwaves, on the internet, getting organised and getting angry. They’re coordinating in their communities to combat sexual violence and taking a stand against archaic sexist legislation; they’re challenging harassment and rape culture.
Across the world, women are fighting back in unprecedented ways. Men and boys, too, are involved as allies — not in large numbers, but enough to make their presence impossible to overlook.
This is not 2011. The mood of hope that so recently swept Europe, America, the Middle East and cyberspace is collapsing into confusion and social tension. Sexism often functions as a pressure-release valve in times of social unrest, and when it does, it takes different forms, depending on local values. Right now, in Egypt, it’s groping, heckling and mob attacks; in Ireland, it’s rape apologism and a backlash against abortion and sexual equality; on the internet, it’s vicious slut-shaming and “revenge porn”. But this time, women are refusing to take it any more.
Like the Arab Spring and Occupy in 2011, local movements are exchanging information and taking courage from one another’s struggles. The fight against misogyny is spreading online and via networks of solidarity and trust that develop rapidly, outside the traditional channels. What’s fascinating about these new feminist movements is their independence. They’re developing organically, outside the well-worn circuit of NGOs, government lobbying and quiet petition-signing that has been the proper format for feminist activism for more than two decades.
This month the government of India was frightened into taking a stand on rape culture by the very real prospect of riots. On the internet, where misogynist abuse has often been accepted, vigilantes are systematically exposing bullies and harassers.
In Cairo last week, women yelled for the Morsi administration to acknowledge and deal with street harassment — but they also brandished knives. I interviewed a rape survivor in her early 20s who told me that if anyone tried to hurt her or her friends again, with no rule of law protecting women, she was prepared to inflict pain.
These women are doing what worthy campaigns like Eve Ensler’s ambitious “one billion rising” campaign cannot manage: they are making men afraid.
It’s too early to say whether the mood of mutiny will last. When people fight misogyny, they aren’t just fighting governments and police forces, religious organisations and strangers in the streets — they also have to deal with intolerance from their loved ones, from their colleagues, from friends and family members who can’t or won’t understand.
Over the last few weeks I have been humbled by the bravery of the activists I’ve met, particularly the women. It takes a special sort of courage to cast off shame, to risk not just violence but also intimate rejection for the sake of a better future. And the thing about courage is that it’s contagious.— The Guardian, London