The persistent battle against rampant sexual harassment in Egypt

There may have been a regime change in Egypt, but the scourge of sexual harassment is as rampant as ever.

Alessandra Bajec

SEVEN hundred and thirty-five police complaints of sexual harassment were recorded over the four-day Eid al-Adha holiday that ended 29 October, according to a statement released by the Egyptian government.

Sexual harassment continues to hit Egypt, with increasing reports of incidents taking place across the country. Yet, Egyptians today acknowledge this longstanding problem exists, and growing social mobilisation has brought together men and women in the fight against harassment.

Sexual harassment remains a widespread plague in Egypt facing girls and women on the streets, in public places, at police stations.

In past years, there have been major incidents of male mobs attacking women over holiday celebrations. In 2006, a group of girls were sexually assaulted during Eid el-Fitr, raising alarm on the epidemic for the first time.

During the Egyptian revolution, sexual violence became more prominent amid several instances of crowds aggressively attacking women in Tahrir Square.

Since 2011, numerous cases of violence and torture against female protesters by the Supreme Council of Armed Forces and Ministry of Interior have been reported, involving beatings, clothes stripping and virginity tests.

Tarek Mustafa, Programme Officer at Nazra Feminist Studies, highlights the politicisation of sexual harassment at a time when police forces are using women's sexuality as a tool to oppress the masses.

The 2011 revolution has brought with it a wave of realisation of rights. Today, Egyptians no longer stay silent in the face of injustice; women are out on the streets and push their battle on the political agenda.

After being a 'taboo' for years, harassment has become the subject of an open debate. The anti-harassment movement in Egypt developed around 2005, when the Egyptian Centre for Women's Rights (ECWR) started a campaign against sexual harassment.

Nihal Saad Zaghloul is one of the founders of Haraket Basma ('Imprint Movement'). She points to HarassMap as the first concrete effort to act for women's safety. Launched in 2010, the site is a social initiative enabling women to instantly report sexual assaults in Egypt via SMS messaging. By mapping those reports, the system helps women through advice on how to file a police report, and find psychological help and self-defence classes.

Dina Hussein, lawyer and coordinator of Nefsi ('I wish'), mentions human chains, marches, online campaigns, and social media platforms among the mediums used to promote the battle on sexual violence. Furthermore, she refers to campaigns to raise awareness inside metro stations, at schools and universities, and in poor neighbourhoods.

More and more initiatives have been launched by women's groups, feminist organisations and youth groups.

During the Eid holiday last August, Basma organised volunteer patrols at metro stations, in coordination with metro authorities. Volunteers were instructed to stop harassers and report them to the appropriate authorities. The patrolling was very successful in preventing many incidents, and helped the police arrest several harassers.

Nazra's Programme Officer talks about a tweet forum, co-organised by Nazra in December 2011, explaining how the patriarchal protection model fails to solve the problem, and needs to be replaced by a feminist discourse arguing for women's empowerment.

Over the past year, several art campaigns have been organised in Cairo to shed light on the topic, including 'Female Graffiti' last March. Mustafa recalls 'Enough', a group exhibition organised last June-August by Darb 1718 art space and HarassMap, which featured artists who tried to break social taboos around the issue through visual art.

A strong supporter of women's rights, Mustafa denounces harassment carried out by men of any socio-economic class, including violence in workplaces and nightclubs which is hardly ever talked about.

Hussein recognises there are more cases reported by women now, although this is still certainly less than the number of actual incidents. Nevertheless, she thinks official complaints will help in the push for an anti-sexual harassment law.

Besides the current lack of appropriate legislation, there is no supportive network in place. One main issue is that the general public does not do anything when a woman is subjected to harassment; most people refuse to come forward as eyewitnesses. Similarly, the police often do not intervene to stop or take legal action against harassers.

Basma's director stresses the need to work collectively to make harassment socially unacceptable and to step in, instead of leaving women to fend for themselves.

Nefsi's coordinator points out that harassment, directed at both Egyptian and foreign women, not only has a direct psycho-social impact; it also affects the country's economy and tourism sector, affecting production amid rising unemployment.

Sexual harassment is only a manifestation of decades of bad governance, corruption, and political and social oppression. Under Mubarak, the topic was rarely addressed; the widespread mentality was to blame the victim and exempt the perpetrator, and the woman was relegated to the bottom of society. As a result, the entire upbringing of Egyptian people has been damaged, and harassment has become socially and culturally rooted.

While Egypt's grassroots movement is using every possible means to put an end to sexual harassment, the new government is called to tackle this social, cultural and political issue on more than just one level.

From introducing a law to criminalise harassment to increased enforcement, from raising awareness in cooperation with civil society and concerned government agencies to promoting efficient upbringing in families, educational institutions and in the social environment, President Mohamed Morsi and his government are left with the big task of ensuring the problem is seriously addressed once and for all. - Bikya Masr (              

*Third World Resurgence No. 266/267, October/November 2012, pp 64-65