Mona Eltahawy describes her recent assault in Cairo: I suffered a broken left arm and right hand. The Egyptian security forces’ brutality is always ugly, often random and occasionally poetic. Initially, I assumed my experience was random, but a veteran human rights activist told me they knew exactly who I was and what they were doing to my writing arms when they sent riot police conscripts to that deserted shop. Bashar al-Assad’s henchmen stomped on the hands of famed Syrian cartoonist Ali Farzat. Our dictators tailor wounds to suit their victims’ occupations.
As the nightsticks whacked at my arms, legs and the top of my head (in the week that followed, I would discover new bruises every day), two things were at the front of my mind: the pain and my smartphone.
The viciousness of their attack took me aback. Yes, I confess, this feminist thought they wouldn’t beat a woman so hard. But I wasn’t just a woman. My body had become Tahrir Square, and it was time for revenge against the revolution that had broken and humiliated Hosni Mubarak’s police. And it continues. We’ve all seen that painfully iconic photograph of the woman who was beaten and stripped to her underwear by soldiers in Tahrir Square. Did you notice the soldier who was about to stomp on her exposed midriff? How could you not?
My phone fell as the four or five riot policemen beat me and then started to drag me towards no man’s land. “My phone, I have to get my phone,” I said, and reached down to try to retrieve it. It wasn’t the Twitterholic in me that threw herself after the phone, but the survivor. For the first three or four hours of detention, I knew they could do anything and no one would know. In the event, it was near-miraculous that, while I was at the ministry, an activist with a smartphone came to discuss setting up a truce between protesters and security. As soon as he signed me in to Twitter, I sent out, “beaten arrested at interior ministry”. And then his phone battery died.
Most people detained the same week I was taken in ended up at a police station or jail, but for some reason I was taken to the interior ministry and was then handed over to military intelligence for almost 12 hours. The sexual assault couldn’t have lasted more than a few minutes, but the psychic bruise remains the freshest.
The orange midnight air – a cocktail of street lights, an adjacent school on fire, and air that was more tear gas than oxygen – and the black outlines of the helmeted riot policemen invade my thoughts every day, but I feel as though I have dissociated myself from what happened. I read news reports about a journalist whose arms were broken by Egyptian police, but I don’t connect them to the splints around my arms that allow only one-finger typing on a touchpad, nor with the titanium plate that will remain in my left arm for a year, to help a displaced fracture align and fuse.
But the hands on my breasts, in between my legs and inside my trousers – that, I know, happened to me. Sometimes I think of them as ravens plucking at my body. Calling me a whore. Pulling my hair. All the while beating me. At one point I fell. Eye-level with their boots, all I thought was: “Get up or you will die.”