This has been eminent in the past week as protesters gathered in Tahrir Square first for the Mubarak trial verdict and then for protests against his former Prime Minister and now presidential candidate, Ahmed Shafiq. On Friday, about 50 Egyptian women participated in a march against sexual harassment in Tahrir Square that took a different turn, when about a group of 200 men sexually assaulted the protesters. Unfortunately, the number of men attacking the women overwhelmed male guardians protecting the march through a protective ring. What took place almost seemed orchestrated, as it was an unexpected incident (Read more about it, here).
During the 18 days of the January 25th Revolution, Cairo briefly experienced a harassment-free transition with no incidents taking place. But since then, the sort of respect found during those historic days has dwindled down to almost nothing again. According to a study by the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights (ECWR) conducted in 2010, 62.4% of Egyptian men “have perpetrated and/or continue to perpetrate one or more of the forms of harassment.”
I had heard of numerous stories of harassment in Egypt, but had never experienced it myself until this past February, when a cab driver reached in the back seat and rubbed my leg while offering to give me a massage (Many more incidents have happened since). After hearing numerous stories and experiencing this rather odd case of harassment, I decided it was time to address the issue. With some friends at the American University in Cairo, we came up with ‘Fight Harassment 101,’ an initiative to counsel young women about harassment and teach them self-defense. The project took off and in a matter of weeks, a professional Judo instructor trained 15 students. Out of the 15, about 13 were wearing hijab, countering the notion that harassment is correlated with the way someone is dressed. According to a study by the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights (ECWR) conducted in 2010:
“31.9% of women who reported sexual harassment were dressed like figure 1, wearing a blouse, long skirt and veil. 21.0% of women were wearing a longer blouse, pants, and veil like figure 3. Figure 4 was third, where women were wearing a cloak and veil (20 %), then figure 6 (19.6%). These results disprove the belief that sexual harassment is linked to the way women dress (women are sexually harassed when dressed indecently or are not veiled in the words of some participants), since 72.5% of victims surveyed were veiled.”
Although these women were trained with the basics, it gave them a sense of empowerment to defend themselves in the worst-case scenarios. They were first shy to share their experiences, but once finding it was a common occurrence and learning that it was not only not their fault, they felt the need to fight against it. Many do not know that in some parts of the world, sexual harassment is considered to be a human rights violation.
With all this talk of harassment, what is to be done? Luckily, Egypt can look to India as a role model to combat sexual harassment and rape. Al Jazeera English’s ‘101 East’ did a program addressing the issue.
In the episode “Unintended consequences: India's rape crisis,” one of the commentators suggests that there is no respect for women in India. The same can possibly be said for Egypt. However, this article is not to dispute reasons for why some Egyptian men act the way they do, but rather how to solve the issue itself.
One man who was interviewed spoke about the importance of communicating on the topic of gender roles and violence, since the topic of sex is avoided. At least in India’s case, nobody has taught boys about sex, and what they did learn supposedly came from friends or porn. Similarly, there is the problem of showing affection for someone they like. Many boys/men see by teasing someone is a means of showing affection. If you do it a lot to show your affection, it eventually turns into harassment. Of course it all starts with basic education on sexuality, the role of men and women in society, and how admiration should be properly expressed. This is a start, but will not be enough to counter the endemic Egypt is facing.
Some suggestions from the program:
•As with India, Egypt has its own crowdsourcing website Harass Map, which allows women to report cases of harassment via SMS and Tweets in hopes of keeping women aware if they enter a place known for harassment incidents. ‘Fight Back’ is India’s first harassment mobile app, where it can call for help using social networking websites to tell people you’re in trouble, so they can come to your aid by either arriving at the scene or notifying the police or family. A map and app will not do much; yet again this is a start.
• A popular concept in India has been an all-women cab fleet that is run by women, for women. These female drivers are taught to drive, fix their cars, and even learn self-defense. The women recruited are from slums and have often been victims of violence themselves. Not only does the company give women an opportunity to have a job, but become ‘agents of change’ in their own society.
• In New Delhi, there is now a woman police force that patrols the streets and has a special desk at police stations to inform women they are available to help them with reporting harassment incidents, as many women feel shy to report the incidents or feel nothing will be done. These women constables go door to door in the poorest areas (They don’t have weapons or make arrests) to talk to women in order to provide information and advice about harassment.
• Visual impact by means of a street theater troop supported by the police has become prominent in India, to encourage women and children to stand up against harassers and helps strike fear in harassers. Even television commercials and billboard ads are other means of countering the issue.
Sexual harassment in Egypt will only stay if we allow it. Now that the tools are made known, it is time for Egyptians to apply them.By Holly Dagres, Aslan Media Columnist