Fighting Egypt's sexual harassment epidemic, one step at a time

no to sexual harassment
Egyptian protesters flash the sign for victory as they chant slogans during a demonstration in Cairo's landmark Tahrir Square on June 5, 2012 to protest against verdicts handed down in ex-president Hosni Mubarak's murder trial. Egyptian activists are looking to combat runaway sexual abuse, which has become worse after the revolution, through a number of small initiatives.  PHOTO | AFP

It has already been labelled as an "epidemic" by rights groups, but it seems in post-revolution Egypt sexual harassment has become worse rather than better. The harassment of women continues on the streets, at times escalating to mob levels, and it has now reached the point where taking steps to eradicate this social malaise has become an absolute necessity.

The cases of CBS reporter Lara Logan and British journalist Natasha Smith are such examples of women getting attacked by a mob and while they attracted international media attention, for many Egyptian women is has been the norm rather than the exception, though not always to the horrendous levels the two faced.

A 2008 study by the Egyptian Centre for Women's Rights (ECWR) revealed shocking figures that 83 per cent of Egyptian and 98 per cent of foreign women in the country have been subjected to some form of sexual harassment. The report came in the wake of the case of Noha Roshdy who was the first person to ever file a sexual harassment case in the country, resulting in her abuser being imprisoned.

At the time Ms Roshdy said: "If women continue to silently put up with the daily sexual harassment in the Egyptian streets, the society will witness new crimes as a result of the mounting oppression women feel when they get harassed."

Back then her words were not heeded but four years later, steps are now being taken to highlight the issue and raise awareness in a society which has almost tacitly accepted what occurs with many choosing to turn a blind eye to the problem.

In an interview with the BBC, Said Sadek, a sociologist from the American University in Cairo, believes the problem is deeply rooted in Egyptian society; a mixture of what he calls increasing Islamic conservatism on the rise since the late 1960s, and old patriarchal attitudes.

"Religious fundamentalism arose, and they began to target women. They want women to go back to the home and not work. Male patriarchal culture does not accept that women are higher than men, because some women had education and got to work, and some men lagged behind and so one way to equalise status is to shock women and force a sexual situation on them anywhere.”

Police apathy

Right groups also believe that the distinct lack of police enforcement is an issue and that more effort on their part is needed if the blaze of sexual harassment is to be put out.

However, it appears actions undertaken by the authorities in the past have had a hand in the sudden explosion of sexual harassment incidents in Egypt. The Arabic daily Al Akhbar reports: “In May 2005, the police recruited paid gangs to sexually harass women taking part in marches in downtown Cairo. The protests were called by the opposition to encourage people to boycott a referendum on constitutional amendments.

"Back then, five human rights groups said that the testimonies they took directly from victims and eyewitnesses had established that 'the assaults perpetrated by the security personnel and the gangs of the National Democratic Party (the ruling party at the time), were not random incidents, but were carried out on specific orders aimed at humiliating women'...After this incident, sexual harassment spread across the country like wildfire.”

This graffiti picture reads no to sexual harassment.

A number of other studies have also shown that various other factors have had a significant say as the "vast majority of Egyptians believe sexual harassment against women is on the rise in Egypt, because of economic conditions, the lack of awareness and the lack of religious values". Not reporting harassment has also been cited as a reason for its continuation and increase as only 2.4 per cent of victims file a case with the police while 96.7 per cent of Egyptian women do not seek police assistance. Many believe increased citations would force the hand of the authorities into taking action.

In regards to legislature, there is not one article in the constitution that directly addresses nor explicitly defines sexual harassment but there are some that are applicable.

Taken initiative

Article 306 relates to "insulting" which "can be applied to cat-calling and other verbal harassments". The punishment ranges from a fine to a one-month stint in prison. Article 278 is about 'indecent behaviour' – cases of “indecent exposure, trailing and stalking with punishment ranging from a fine to three years in prison." Article 268 covers 'sexual assault' and applies to “cases of touching and other physical harassment with punishment ranging from three to 15 years in prison.”

Whether such similar articles or even more clear cut ones will be addressed in the new constitution remains doubtful as already various women and rights groups have raised their objections and fears over the fact the new legislative document allegedly includes in Article 36 of the 'Rights and Duties' section which reads: "The state is committed to taking all constitutional and executive measures to ensure equality of women with men in all walks of political, cultural, economic and social life, without contradicting the precepts of Islamic Law."

What that particular wording “without contradicting the precepts of Islamic Law”, its interpretation and how it will be applied remains to be seen, but for many it does not bode well.

But rather than wait for legislation to be stepped up and comply with facing the ever worsening issue of sexual harassment, various groups and initiatives have decided to take matters into their own hands and initiate steps to counteract and eradicate this social ill.

An Egyptian woman uses her tablet to video protesters in Cairo's landmark Tahrir Square on June 4, 2012. The protests fuelled harassment cases. PHOTO | AFP

The Sexual Harass map is one such initiative started by Rebecca Chiao after she moved to Egypt to work in a women's NGO. The source map idea is simple: when a sexual harassment incident is reported a red dot appears on the map and it grows in proportion to the number of incidents reported in that particular area complete with personal case reports pertaining to the issue in the areas harassment cases were reported.

Platform

The women can use their mobile phone to report all incidents either via text message or email, where they're listed by type: touching, catcalling, ogling, stalking and/or following, indecent exposure and rape or sexual assault. The harassment map was the first of such initiatives that tackled the problem head on, giving women the platform to report these incidents.

Fast-forward to post-revolution Egypt and many have taken the matter into their hands rather then wait for the authorities to deal with the problem. Banat Masr Khat A7mar (Egypt's Women are a Red Line -meaning they cannot be crossed), Welad El Balad (The Sons of the Country), Imprint Movement, Al Fouada Initiative and Estargel (Behave Like a Man/Man Up) are just some of the groups set up to combat the problem by working from the grassroots level up.

From holding workshops to raise public awareness and setting up 24 hour hotlines to talking directly to male youths amongst whom the number of perpetrators is significant; the groups and NGOs are starting to make a difference. Volunteers are trained on the legal aspects and the constitutional articles that deal with harassment in order to inform women of their rights and what they can and should do when faced with sexual aggressors.

They're also trained to approach harassers from a number of different levels; on some the religious angle can prove to be very effective while for others values especially those of "chivalry" and "male machismo", which are very important to most Arab men, is very effective.

Cultural barriers

Cultural barriers have also been one of the bigger obstacles campaigners and volunteers face when talking to others about sexual harassment. What is viewed as a "respectable" dress code in comparison to what isn't most often becomes blurred as it comes down to an individual's perception and belief, especially as ECWR reports that the majority of women harassed wear the head veil.

Dina Farid the founder of Banat Masr states "One of the most popular delusion among men in Egypt, which we hear a lot is that ‘respectable’ women do not get harassed." The common belief that wearing provocative clothing is cause enough for men to harass women has always been thrown up as a reason and one many believe.

Not so says Farid, "Not only is this unjust against women who have the right to walk down streets without getting harassed, regardless of what they wear, but it also implies that men are helpless people who cannot control their sexual desires, which is very insulting to men," she insists.
The establishment of these action groups indicates there is a change in attitude amongst people, that remaining silent on sexual harassment is no longer option and that there some willing to take the initiative in light of the governments lack of action.

As Sherine Badr the founder of Estergel says "I am optimistic that our efforts would make a change. At least now the problem of sexual harassment is unveiled, which is the first step to solving it; and we are not going to give up on the fight."

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