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
No licence to touch
The sexual harassment of women has too long been thought of as a "safe crime", but things are beginning to change, writes Salonaz Sami
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Several women have been sexually harassed in Tahrir. Some stand a chance of being saved by men from harassers, like this woman but others aren't saved as early as needed
Sara arrived at work broken, her hands shaking with anger and feeling an indescribable rage she didn't think she was capable of feeling. She told her co-workers what had happened, and the women cringed as they remembered the last time they were in her place. The men's reactions were different, and they said this sort of thing never happened to their mothers or sisters. It must have been her fault, they said.
Sara's story is one of dozens that are told on video at Enough, a sexual harassment exhibition at the Darb 1718 Contemporary Art and Culture Centre.
According to Sara's video testimony, she thought she had everything right. Her clothes were too big; she was wearing nerdy glasses; a veil covered her hair; and she was not wearing make-up. Yet, she still got sexually harassed on her way to work. What was even worse was that though this happened in the middle of the street in broad day light, no one seemed to care.
Sara screamed at the top of her voice, frantically looking for the assailant. She looked at the people around her, hoping for their support, but all she got was indifference, and, worse, what looked a little like mockery. "There was not one sympathetic face. Not one," she said in her testimony at the exhibition.
In addition to video testimonies, the exhibition also features photographs and paintings by 15 artists from Egypt, Germany, Serbia and Tunisia, all of whom tackle the tabooed issue in an effort to break the silence surrounding it. Enough is a collaboration between Darb 1718 and HarassMap, a web-based service that maps sexual harassment in Egypt through SMS reporting by victims or witnesses.
The SMSs are then integrated into an interactive map of Egypt, showing the reported incidents and plotted according to criteria such as, "indecent exposure", "stalking or following" and "touching". HarassMap was founded in 2010 by four women in an effort to fight the growing phenomenon of sexual harassment and to help alleviate the sense of helplessness and frustration that women can endure following such incidents.
Unfortunately, Sara's account of her harassment is anything but uncommon. In fact, the women, who participated in the anti-sexual harassment march last month in Tahrir, were sexually assaulted.
Women have been suffering from sexual harassment in silence for decades, according to Nihad Abul-Qomsan, head of the Egyptian Centre for Women's Rights (ECWR). "The difference is that now, just like Sara, they have learned to talk about it," Abul-Qomsan told Al-Ahram Weekly.
"The voices of women in post-revolutionary Egypt are louder and more fearless," she added. "Women are not afraid to stand up for themselves anymore, and they no longer feel it is their fault if they are harassed."
In 2008, the ECWR surveyed 2,000 Egyptian men and women and 109 foreign women in four governorates about sexual harassment. The results were shocking, with 83 per cent of Egyptian women surveyed reporting that they had experienced sexual harassment on the street at least once and nearly half of the Egyptian women saying they experienced it daily.
On the other hand, 62 per cent of the men surveyed admitted to sometimes harassing women, and 53 per cent of them even accused women of "asking for it".
Nagwa Aziz, a professor of sociology, has studied the phenomenon, and in her view it is now an epidemic to the extent that many women are now afraid of walking down the street without a male companion. "It doesn't matter how old you are or what clothes you wear, unlike what some people might suggest," Aziz said. Sexual harassment, according to Aziz, is not really about men wanting to satisfy their sexual instincts at all.
"In fact, it is a way for the male harasser to prove to himself and those around him his superiority and control over women and accordingly over their bodies," Aziz said. Abul-Qomsan agreed. "Sexual harassment has turned into a tool in the hands of those in power," she explained. "Let's not forget that the former ruling National Democratic Party was the first to use sexual harassment against women journalists back in 2006."
Abul-Qomsan believes that a distinction must be made between the sexual harassment that has taken place in Tahrir Square in Cairo and that which has happened elsewhere in the country. Incidents like the recent attack on British journalist Natasha Smith and earlier CBS correspondent Lara Logan, both of which took place in Tahrir Square, were political rather than sexual, Abul-Qomsan said.
"How else could you explain that during the 18 days of the revolution not a single harassment case was reported," she asked. "I believe the present problem of harassment is a result of a conspiracy to destroy the reputation, image and honour of the demonstrators in Tahrir Square," she explained.
This is why, according to Abul-Qomsan, no harassment incidents have taken place at Abbasiya or Nasr City gatherings. "Those in power are trying to send out a message that people are allowed to do anything but talk politics," she explained. "They are politically harassing women's bodies, in order to shut up the population."
Aziz voiced another concern. "The increasing severity of the harassment attacks can be attributed partially, in my opinion, to the women themselves," she said. Over the years, and due to incorrect social principles, women have come to the conclusion that "it must have been my fault" when they are harassed.
"They have accepted the humiliation and frustration and lived with it for years without as much as a complaint," Aziz added. Shockingly, only two women, Noha Roshdi and Dina Emad, have filed official complaints with the police. Roshdi's case was the first to attract media attention back in 2008, when Roshdi insisted on taking a truck driver who sexually harassed her on the street to court.
The offender was sentenced to three years in prison for indecent assault, a first of its kind in Egypt. Like Sara's account, Roshdi's testimony of what happened stressed her feelings of helplessness and anger. In an interview with Mona El-Shazli on Dream TV, Roshdi said that of the over 40 people present at the time of the attack, only one was supportive and sympathetic.
"This is why I call sexual harassment the 'safe crime,'" said Abul-Qomsan. Because the offenders are not called to account for their actions, they harass over and over again. "Why harass one woman when you can harass 10," she asked. However, now that women are speaking up for themselves, Abul-Qomsan is more optimistic about the future.
On 20 June last year on the International Day for Blogging and Tweeting on Sexual Harassment against Women, dozens of women shared their experiences in an effort to end the social acceptance of this dangerous phenomenon. The accounts showed how far women have come over the past couple of years, with one example being that of 21-year-old Dina Emad, who filed the second official harassment complaint in Egyptian history.
While walking in the street at noon, Emad was sexually harassed by a motorcyclist. But, unlike Sara, Emad was able to find the offender and get him arrested. In a post on her Facebook page, Emad compared her story to those of the women in the Egyptian film Bus 678. Quoting from the film, Emad wrote, "look him, the harasser, in the eye and he will get scared because he is looking for a weak victim who won't have much to say."
Prior to this incident, Emad had no idea what it meant to look a harasser in the eye. "This is a man who thinks I am a free-for-all commodity. Why would he be scared if I look him in the eye," Emad asked herself. However, during the assault she realised what this simple gesture could mean.
"I am a short and petite person who has no knowledge of martial arts. However, I never felt stronger than I did when looking the attacker in the eye and giving him a piece of my mind," she said. The film compared the stigma women felt at not admitting, even to themselves, that they had been the victims of sexual harassment to having stomach pains and not telling a physician. "How can he help if you don't tell him your symptoms," she asked.
"Did anyone pressure me to withdraw the complaint? Yes. Was it from the harasser's family? Believe it or not, no. It was from my own family," Emad wrote in her post. "But I didn't have time to think," she continued. "It was nothing but a reflex. I was thinking about what I knew I should do, in spite of my fear, rather than what not to do."
"I hope someday people will start talking about the problem and break the walls of silence they surround themselves with," Emad said. "I hope that every man knows that his sister can be sexually harassed in the street, regardless of what she might be wearing. I hope women will know it is not their fault and tell people when it happens."
Like the singer Mohamed Mounir says in one of his songs addressing women, "why shut up? Talk. Why pay the price alone? Talk."
"Talk to a friend," Emad added. "Talk to an online support group, or even create a Facebook account and tell it like it is. The important thing is to get it out of your system."