14 Feb Sexual harassment on the streets of Egypt
The recent allegations of sexual harassment over decades lodged against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein and the domino effect on other public figures has sent ripples worldwide. The #metoo hashtag on social media united not only female victims but also many male supporters. My experience in Egypt, however, is that sexual harassment isn’t limited to the workspace but is loud and proud on the streets too.
I’ve known harassment since my early teens by men on the street or in shops in Cairo. At that time, in the early and mid-90s, it never extended beyond mostly harmless cat calls on the street, unwanted smiles, or insinuations. But, over time, the way predatory men started to harass women has begun shifting to more insulting, derogatory calls, even exposing genitals and touching or groping women on the street.
As girls, we used to share these stories together in the privacy of our rooms. We were too afraid to tell our parents. Women didn’t speak about harassment publicly because there was no way to prove it and the women would always be blamed.
The rising wave of harassment had reached a peak when the case of a young film-maker named Noha El Ostaz hit the news. After being groped by a passing truck driver who then accelerated and dragged her until she fell, she insisted on taking the man to the police station despite public pleas to let him go. She endured long court procedures, offensive questions from the public prosecutor, public debasement and accusations until she finally won her case and the harasser received a three-year jail sentence. But street harassment didn’t stop: it was too deeply embedded in the lives of the offenders.
Owning the streets
Most street harassers come from a low economic status and spend much of their time at the roadside working in roles such as coffee shop staff, mechanics, builders, labourers, and public bus drivers. They see the street as their personal domain and the women who enter it must be prepared to endure whatever comment comes into their minds. They show no respect for elderly women or young girls. Even women wearing the full face-veil receive comments on their dress, with some mimicking expressions of fear and then laughter.
Women aren’t only harassed while walking in the street but also while driving. Harassers can pull a woman’s hair, push their hands through the window to touch her, or make a sharp overtake to scare her. Recently, a man deliberately drove far too slowly, preventing me from turning into a street despite continuous honking from me and other drivers and, in the end, gave me a dark look and blew a kiss in my direction.
Now as the community openly discusses abusive behaviour towards women, the topic is receiving media attention. A film called 678, representing the number plates of a bus, shows the stark reality of women’s experiences of sexual harassment on public transport.
The film received public acclaim, but it was also criticised for showing the steps women took to defend themselves using pins to pierce the groins of attackers. The film also failed to give the full picture of the problem. Yes, it showed the disadvantages women face as they push against the tide, but it emphasised that harassment is a problem caused by the sexual repression men face in our culture. This comes close to excusing them and overlooks the fact that it harassment is also about power, in the form of humiliating, dominating, or intimidating the victim.
The truth is that sexual harassment among Egyptian men is not restricted to sexual repression. It is outright aggression against women because they know there is no punishment.
Men in the early 1970s in Egypt never dared to harass women because there were direct orders from President Nasser that whomever was caught cat calling a woman would be reported to the police and have his head shaved. This was a sign that this person was a harasser. Communities were safe at the time and whenever someone saw his friend’s sister being harassed, he’d quickly intervene, protect her, and shame the offender.
Now, there is public lack of interest and even sometimes public consent. No one dares to shame a harasser or protect a woman from harassment. The number of mob rapes by young men rose sharply during the Arab Spring. A famous American television presenter, an Egyptian actress, female journalists and others were attacked. A police officer was beaten in Tahrir square while intervening to save a TV presenter from a group of men who gathered to rape her.
A recent poll by Thomson Reuters singled out Cairo as the most dangerous city for sexual harassment. Actually, I think this is misleading. It is not that Egyptian men are more guilty of harassing women than others, but the rates are higher because Egypt’s large population is concentrated in a small area.
Nor is harassment or assault exclusive to poorer countries. I was harassed in the United States three times in the space of a month, once on the street and twice in a shop. Harassment is a byproduct of negligence and lack of enforcement by police.
Political instability, a lack of national and community unity and discrimination against the public by authorities to the point of contempt, lead to a spirit of negligence. Police can’t be bothered by public problems unless they get orders from higher authorities. This leaves the public to make their own rules for the streets.
Since the police force in Egypt is more interested in arresting criminal gangs, drug abusers and weapon carriers, ordinary citizens are too scared to come to the aid of a victim of assault. It is much easier to blame her for how she is dressed, for being out on the street alone, or being out at an inappropriate time.
Nevertheless, women in Egypt don’t succumb to harassment easily and try to fight back even though there isn’t much support from the government. In 2010 female activists launched HarassMap, an online project which invites women to report experiences of harassment and, after verifying them, places them on a Google map of Egypt, showing women the hotspots to avoid. Volunteers visit these areas to talk to local workers and work towards making them harassment-free zones. There were also projects by groups of youth walking on the streets during public holidays and feasts to catch harassers and stop them called “Catch a Harasser”. Despite many positive attempts to address the issue, one thing is still missing: the robust authority measures that will truly make Egypt’s streets safe for women.
Mary Joseph is a Cairo-based journalist for SAT-7, a Christian satellite TV network watched by some 25 million viewers in the Middle East and North Africa.