Egypt: British student describes Tahrir Square sex assault
A BRITISH student who was sexually assaulted by a mob during victory celebrations for Egypt’s presidential election has described coming "close to death" during the attack.
Natasha Smith, 21, travelled to Cairo to make a documentary for a university assignment. She became separated from her friends in Tahrir Square and was subjected to a horrific assault in which she was stripped naked and abused in a crowd of hundreds.
On Tuesday, Miss Smith wrote an account of the ordeal on an internet blog. It has since had over 230,000 hits.
In her first newspaper interview since the attack, Miss Smith told The Daily Telegraph that she was “naïve” to venture into an area renowned for mob assaults on women. Lara Logan, a reporter for US network CBS, was subjected to a similar attack by 200 men last year.
But the student from Weymouth, Dorset, said: “I see myself as a catalyst. This is such a widespread issue and the world has to take notice.
“I don’t want this to just be about Westerners who go into the Arab world and put themselves in danger, but about women who are victims of mass sexual abuse. This is a trend and I want to get to work raising more awareness.”
Miss Smith said of her ordeal: “Coming that close to death has changed me a lot. It’s been a very formative experience. I’m definitely stronger and wiser.
“I switched off my danger sensors and that was my mistake. I took risks I shouldn’t have taken. I understand people saying, ‘It’s your own fault, you brought it on yourself’.
“But I would love it if I could contribute to a movement where women don’t have to think like that, where they don’t have to think they shouldn’t go to certain places.”
The documentary was the final assignment for Miss Smith’s MA in International Journalism at Falmouth College, Cornwall. Students were told to choose a subject matter and Miss Smith’s idea was to make a documentary overturning stereotypes about Muslim women.
She stayed with a friend, Callum Paton, who was working in Cairo. She arrived on June 15 and on June 24, the day the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi was declared president, the pair headed out at 8.30pm to watch the celebrations.
“As a trainee journalist, your instinct is just to be out there in the action,” Miss Smith said. “I just wanted to film the fireworks and flags. We wanted to soak up the atmosphere but we had no intention of going right into the square.”
As the pair crossed the Qasr El Nil bridge which leads to the square, the mood changed. Miss Smith said: “On the bridge there were women and children, everyone was smiling and saying, ‘Welcome to Egypt!’ There was absolutely no threat.
“At the end of the bridge suddenly there was this surge of people. I couldn’t move. It all turned ugly within 20 or 30 seconds.”
Miss Smith was modestly dressed in a long-sleeved top and ankle-length skirt but was not wearing a headscarf, which she now says was “a huge mistake”.
She said of the sudden attack: “Maybe I was being watched and it was coordinated, maybe some people simply noticed me and others followed suit, maybe it was spontaneous.
“I started to be groped and touched aggressively and invasively through my clothes. That was the only point at which I screamed, because something inside me clicked and I realised what was happening.
“Callum did his best to hold on to me but there were so many people. I was dragged away. He was dragged in the opposite direction. My camera was taken and my bag, and I thought, ‘This is no longer about possessions, this is just about me’.
“I fell and twisted my ankle. My skirt was dragged off. I didn’t feel my underwear being taken off but that happened. They were trying to rip off my top, which was painful.
“I looked down at myself and realised that I was naked. I reached this state of absolute detachment. I’ve read that’s quite common, the way the brain deals with trauma. I wasn’t screaming any more because I thought it was a waste of my energy and I didn’t want to pass out. And I thought, don’t resist because they will get more angry.
“I started calling ‘Allah, Allah’ and ‘Salaam’ which means ‘peace’. I thought there was a vague chance they might think again but they weren’t in the kind of mentality where they were going to listen.”
Miss Smith was aware of some men in the crowd trying to help her. “They tried to form a human shield around me and I owe them my life. They could have been killed themselves for trying to save me but they didn’t give up.
“It was a crowd of hundreds. Obviously you can’t have hundreds of hands on you at once, that’s impossible. But everyone who could touch me was touching me. All I could see was faces and all I could feel was hands. I was abused for 20 minutes, constantly.
“I thought, maybe this is it, maybe this is how I’m going to die. I hope it’s quick.”
Miss Smith was rescued by a group who had been alerted by Mr Paton, and who took her to a nearby medical tent. There, local women disguised her in a burqa and told her to pretend to be the wife of a local man who led her out through the crowds.
She was eventually reunited with Mr Paton and the two made their way to a nearby government hospital, but were turned away. “I was crying and trying to describe the situation but they said, ‘We can’t treat you here’. I don’t think they full understood what had happened.”
At a second hospital, she was shocked to be asked by a doctor if she was married, pregnant or a virgin. Staff refused to examine her. After three hours, embassy staff arrived and took Miss Smith to a private clinic, where she received treatment.
Speaking from Cairo, Mr Paton said many men in the crowd tried to help Miss Smith.
"Categorically I can say there were a lot of people who tried to help.
"A lot of people there did totally evil things, but a lot of people helped - particularly some fantastic women who did everything they could and put their own lives in danger," he said.
Miss Smith said she did not want her story to be a cautionary tale about the dangers for Western women visiting the Middle East. “I don’t want people to turn against Egyptians because of events like this. It’s a small minority of bad people who commit these attacks and they exist everywhere, not just in Egypt.”
Miss Smith who hopes to return to Egypt to make a “bigger and better” documentary about sexual harassment, based on her own experience.