Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Persistent battle against rampant sexual harassment in Egypt

Palestinian News Network

The Persistent Battle on Rampant Sexual Harassment in Egypt

Saturday, 10 November 2012

Alessandra Bajec


735 police complaints about harassment were recorded over the four-day Eid al-Adha which ended last 29th 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 long-standing problem exists, and growing social mobilization 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.

Since the Egyptian revolution, sexual violence became more prominent amid several instances of crowds aggressing 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, Program Officer at Nazra Feminist Studies, highlights the politicization of sexual harassment at a time when police forces are using women’s sexuality as a tool to oppress the masses.

The 2001 revolution has brought with it a wave of realization 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 an open debate. The anti-harassment movement in Egypt developed around 2005, when the Egyptian Center 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, find psychological help and self-defense 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, in poor neighborhoods.

More and more initiatives have been launched by women’s groups, feminist organizations and youth groups.

During Eid holiday last August, Basma organized 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 Program Officer talks about a tweet forum, co-organized 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 empowerment.

Over the past year, several art campaigns have been organized in Cairo to shed light on the topic including ‘Female Graffiti’ last March. Mustafa recalls ‘Enough’, a group exhibition held last June-August, organized by Darb 1718 art space and Harassmap, featuring 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 night clubs which is hardly ever talked about.

Hussein recognizes there are more cases reported by women now, however certainly less than the actual incidents. Nevertheless, she thinks official complaints will help to press for an anti-sexual harassment law.

Besides the lack of appropriate legislation, there is no supportive network in place. One main issue is the general public does not do anything when a woman is subjected to harassment, most people refuse to help as eye-witnesses.

Similarly, the police often do not interfere to stop or take legal action against harassers.

Basma’s director stresses the need to work collectively to make harassment socially unacceptable and step in, instead of leaving women alone.

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

Sexual harassment is only a manifestation of decades of bad governing, corruption, political and social oppression. Under Mubarak, there were rare talks on the topic, the widespread mentality was driven to blame the victim and exempt the perpetrator, 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 enrooted.

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 criminalize harassment to increased enforcement, raising awareness in cooperation with civil society and concerned government agencies, to promoting efficient upbringing in families, educational institutions and in social environment, President Morsi and his government are left with the big task to ensure the problem is seriously addressed once for all. 

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