Sexual harassment in the Egyptian streets is on the rise, but some women have chosen to speak up. Filing a police report, fighting back the harasser, writing about their experience and holding an exhibition about this abusive behaviour is only the start. Al-Ahram Weekly talks to the women who are fighting for their rights
Speaking up and speaking out
Sexual harassment of women may be on the rise, but more and more victims are coming forward with their stories, writes Sarah Amos
As Cairo's Tahrir Square swelled with thousands of people last Sunday following the announcement of Mohamed Mursi's victory in the presidential elections, the iconic square once again found itself plunged into the international media's spotlight -- this time not as an icon of democracy, but rather as the setting for sexual violence against women.
Twenty-one-year-old student journalist Natasha Smith was heading towards the square over Qasr Al-Nil Bridge that night to film the jubilant scene for a documentary about the status of women in post-revolutionary Egypt. Instead of filming footage, she was swallowed quickly by the crowd and became the victim of sexual abuse.
"Men began to rip off my clothes. I was stripped naked," she wrote on her blog later. "Their insatiable appetite to hurt me was heightened. These men, hundreds of them, had turned from humans to animals."
Her blog post, entitled "Please God, Make it Stop" quickly went viral, with over 10,000 Facebook visits over the past week. The post graphically details the assault Smith suffered from at the hands of "hundreds" of unidentified men, before being brought to a tent where she was disguised in men's clothing and a veil and taken to hospital. Smith noted that she did not intend to enter the square, but had been swept away by the crowd and separated from her two male friends who were accompanying her.
"I think [the assault] may have been because of rumours of my being a foreign spy, or it could just have been because of an explosion of activity," Smith said in a phone interview with Al-Ahram Weekly. Although she was dressed in a conservative long-sleeved blouse and ankle-length skirt, Smith still stood out as a foreigner, which she thinks was among the reasons why she was targeted.
"On the one hand, I was attacked because I am a western girl.... But I recently found out that a married Egyptian woman was also attacked that night, not long after I was," Smith said. "That makes me think, was it just because of the way I looked? Or was it because I was a woman? Or was it because of the atmosphere? It's hard to say."
According to a 2008 study by the Egyptian Centre for Women's Rights (ECWR), 83 per cent of Egyptian women said they had experienced sexual harassment, defined as "unwanted sexual contact" which ranges from name-calling to rape and includes ogling, whistling and shouting, touching, following or exposing the genitals. For foreign women, the number shoots up to 98 per cent of those surveyed. The problem is thus undeniably widespread, although only 2.4 per cent of victims report it to the police.
Dissecting the causes behind the prevalence of sexual harassment of women, which some believe has surged during Egypt's transition, reveals a toxic mix of forces: mob mentality, rigid cultural norms, victim-blaming and a culture of impunity. However, Egyptian journalist Mona El-Tahawi, herself a victim of sexual assault last November, dismisses the theory that this phenomenon erupted after the ousting of former president Hosni Mubarak.
According to El-Tahawi, the first systematic assaults on female activists and journalists began in 2005, following protests in response to the referendum allowing for multiple presidential candidates.
"Women were holding up their ripped clothes, and we saw video uploaded on YouTube where women were pinned to the ground and had to suffer simulated rape. No one was held accountable because the regime said there was no proof," El-Tahawi told the Weekly. "When the regime does this, it gives the green light to men to think that women's bodies are fair game, and then things are done with impunity."
The following year in 2006, attacks during Eid celebrations occurred in downtown Cairo, when a mob of young men went on the rampage, attacking women openly in the streets. "Looking back now, it's not so shocking after all," El-Tahawi said of the alarming trend of increased sexual violence that has continued to exist both on a systemic level and is experienced everyday by Egyptian women.
In spite of the rampancy of sexual assault, both international readers and Egyptians were shocked by the young British woman's explicit account after it appeared on social media sites. Comments on the blog numbered over 2,000 in less than a week and quickly degenerated into indictments of Smith's actions, or even rejections of the validity of her testimony altogether.
"I understand why people are sceptical, but I just want to contribute to a situation where women can stand up when these attacks occur and not just hide away," Smith said, defending her choice to speak out. Some critics claim that a similar story with an Egyptian female victim, instead of a western, blonde girl, wouldn't have garnered the same international attention.
"Very few Egyptian women feel comfortable about speaking out about this, and when they do speak out hardly any attention is paid to them," El-Tahawi said. "And so there's this idea that only when western women are attacked does anyone pay attention. So it's like Egyptian women don't count."
However, she adds, when a Western woman comes forward the international uproar often overshadows the actual crime committed, as was seen in another assault last year. It becomes a case of "Egypt versus the West", and the debate quickly deteriorates, as defensiveness, racism and Islamophobia then begin to enter the fray, she said.
"I want to move beyond that. I want to talk about the woman that survived this attack," El-Tahawi said. However, for every Natasha Smith, there may well be scores of Egyptian women and girls who have suffered similar attacks. But few of these come forward.
"I think one of the hardest things is for women to speak out because of the environment they live in, and I'm hoping that we will now have a social revolution to go hand-in-hand with our political revolution," El-Tahawi said. Returning to Egypt after years abroad, El-Tahawi plans to launch the National Campaign Against Sexual Violence, which will serve as an umbrella organisation for existing women's groups and NGOs. Part advocacy and awareness, the campaign has already garnered attention from the thousands of El-Tahawi's twitter followers, as well as Egyptian women on the ground, such as Samira Ibrahim, the woman who publicly came forward to denounce SCAF "virginity tests". El-Tahawi hopes to provide services ranging from teaching young girls about safety to training doctors about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, a psychological ailment that often follows assault. El-Tahawi believes that without a social revolution, the political revolution will fail. "And for me this is the real revolution," she said.
Twenty-one-year-old Salma Hegab, a smartphone-toting, constantly tweeting student activist who believes such a shift is possible, is a scholarship student from Nasr City at the American University in Cairo studying mass communication. Hegab said that in her view the tide was turning, albeit gradually, when it comes to the stigma of speaking out against harassment.
Hegab said it had not been uncommon for her to experience harassment walking home from school when she was younger. One time, when she was just a girl, a man in a car had even exposed himself to her. "In the past, I used to feel guilty about this," Hegab said. "I never told that stuff to my parents or anyone else. You hide that stuff from your parents and from society, because you don't know how they would react to hearing such things."
As she got older and entered secondary school in an attempt to dress more conservatively Hegab began to wear the abaya, "a jeans one -- it's cooler than the regular black abaya," she said with a laugh. But that didn't stop the harassment. In fact, according the ECWR survey, 72.5 per cent of harassment victims were veiled.
"In the community I was raised in, harassment was seen as the girls' fault because she was not dressed moderately, or was not walking moderately. They used to tell us this stuff," Hegab said. "After I had experiences of being harassed, even though I was dressed moderately and walking in a moderate way, I came home and asked my family what I was supposed to have done wrong. Why do I have to hear men calling me stuff I don't want to hear?"
Her questions went unanswered. "In the years before the revolution, nobody had an answer to this problem," Hegab said. She thinks that since the revolution's opening up of cultural norms, outlets now exist where women can express their frustrations over this epidemic. She said that using Twitter to highlight the problem to a greater audience had helped her realise it wasn't her fault, and she had stopped blaming herself.
"I used to be disgusted with the term 'sexual harassment,'" she admitted. "But now I see that in order to do something about this, we have to bring this subject up all the time." She hopes the collective voices of women will pressure the government into implementing rules against assault that would put the perpetrators into jail.
The Egyptian penal code doesn't consider sexual harassment to be a crime at present, though "immoral acts on public highways" and "indecent assault" when presented with irrefutable proof can be considered forms of sexual harassment. Yet, the legal foundation of such crimes still differs from those found in other countries, including even Gulf states such as the UAE and Qatar.
Because Egyptian culture is deeply rooted in ideas of shame and honour, Hegab believes, if the law began to punish men for committing harassment this "would be a stain on his reputation forever."
But legal enforcement does not appear to be on the immediate horizon. The country is still grappling with the law-and-order vacuum due to the tug-of-war between the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and the newly elected president. As the country remains distracted by political issues, sexual harassment and assault continues.
"I'm fed up with it. Most girls I know can't have a normal life because they're afraid to go to places by themselves," Noha Sabri, a student from Minya studying at AUC said. "And I don't have a person to take me from one point to another, so I started fighting it."
Sabri became involved with the initiative HarassMap, which utilises mobile technology and Internet mapping to report sexual harassments as they occur, spreading awareness of the phenomenon. By sending an SMS after experiencing or witnessing a sexual attack, the incident is marked on an Internet map, which then identifies "hotspots" to alert the police.
After a victim sends the text, she or he will receive a number of services, ranging from filing a police report to accessing psychological assistance. On the ground, activists such as Sabri, captain of the Zamalek team in Cairo, are talking with local populations about the prevalence of harassment.
"They often don't understand how bad the situation is, or how it affects the girl," Sabri said about the reactions of many men she talks to. Once when she was speaking to a man about the problems of harassment, he blatantly ogled a girl at the same time while claiming to understand how bad the phenomenon was. Sabri has even spoken to men who admit to harassing girls, or who perpetuate the stereotype that the "woman wanted it" or "deserved it" because of her clothing. She said it was not an easy job to raise awareness of such issues, but "we have begun to see a difference in many of the people we are talking to."
Coming forward and breaking the silence on harassment is something that some young women have been doing in Egypt, like Smith has done.
"I want to say to Egyptian women that this is not about me," Smith said. Instead of focussing on her story, she said she hopes that women will now move forward in order to figure out the source of the intimidation of women, as well as a possible solution.
"I think that I could be the catalyst for a much bigger movement, and I want to be a part of that movement now to help many other women who suffer attacks," Smith said.