- Published on Tuesday, 01 May 2012 20:00
In the initial eighteen days of Egypt’s uprising last year, Tahrir Square underwent a transformation. From a congested, traffic-heavy roundabout in the heart of downtown Cairo, Tahrir Square has evolved into a symbolic utopia for revolutionaries struggling for social justice. Since then, when one enters the square, particularly before a milioneya (million man/ woman march) or on a Friday before Jumaa prayer, you wait patiently at a makeshift border for someone to inspect your bag. Women check women. Men check men. Unlike the mechanical security crossings at airports and land borders, when you cross into Tahrir, you are met with warm greetings and smiles of solidarity.
This checkpoint ritual is a reminder that despite Tahrir’s genderless ideal, the space is gendered. It is also a reminder that reporting on the treatment of women, not just within the borders of Tahrir, but throughout the streets of a nation in transition, is in itself a sensitive, politicized act. With Tahrir as a sacred space, civil society organizations mobilizing around gender-based violence deal with an extra layer of social scrutiny.
HarassMap, for example, a startup that raises awareness on sexual harassment in Egypt, has found itself caught in the middle of this debate around what constitutes tarnishing Tahrir. HarassMap was launched in December 2010, just before Egypt’s uprising last January. According to its official press release, HarassMap provides a mechanism for survivors to not only speak out, but access services. Through a crowdsourcing platform, HarassMap creates a space for harassment survivors to tell their stories by sending in either SMS text messages or via social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter.
Through reporting, HarassMap volunteers are able to map reports which helps inform their community outreach efforts. The HarassMap team recognizes that reporting is not enough to put an end to harassment on the streets. It requires mobilizing individuals and communities to take action by being watchful against harassment and speaking out against harassers and defending victims. To raise awareness, HarassMap organizes teams of volunteers of mixed gender to go out once a month either in their own neighborhoods or in the case of Tahrir, visiting tents and platforms, to engage their local communities. They talk with shop owners, police, car parkers, doormen, and even the people overseeing checkpoints in Tahrir, about remaining vigilant and speaking out when they witness an instance of harassment.
They are also able to connect directly to survivors and provide them with access to services such as filing police reports, legal aid, and self defense classes. Since mid-December 2010, HarassMap has already received over 700 reports and their volunteer database includes over 500 volunteers. Illustrating that sexual harassment is not just a “women’s issue” but a broader human rights issue, roughly half of HarassMap’s volunteers are men.
At a HarassMap meeting I attended a few days after the one year anniversary of the January 25 uprising, one of the key issues debated was how to deal with sensitivities around reporting sexual harassment in Tahrir. Within the last year, mainstream Western media outlets have highlighted a range of harassment cases such as CBS reporter Lara Logan's assault the night of Mubarak’s ouster in February. There was also a great deal of coverage on the Egyptian military's forced virginity tests inside the Egyptian Museum in early March and its alleged brutality against a female protester whose exposed torso and blue bra featured prominently in the Atlantic, Guardian, and the New York Times in November of last year. These articles are important for highlighting gender-based violence, either sanctioned by the state or happening spontaneously on the street, should not be tolerated under any circumstances.
However, the danger in over-fixating on these stories is that it perpetuates the myth that substandard treatment of women is somehow unique to the region. The same applies for the obsession to fetishize honor crimes as an exotic Middle Eastern tradition rather than a form of domestic violence, worldwide phenomenon.
During the meeting, HarassMap volunteers brainstormed ways to continue raising awareness on such a sensitive issue with these considerations in mind. There seemed to be a general consensus that context mattered. And that these stories about harassment are not just between the victim and the attacker, but also involved the community.
In some of the cases, bystanders in the crowd intervened to help the victim. More often than not, the stories of such heroes are not recorded. When my mother decided to pray in Tahrir with a small group of women last spring for Jumaa prayer, she and four other women stood elbow to elbow in solidarity, a man in the crowd interrupted them. He pointed at my mother and the four other women describing their act of prayer as “haram” or forbidden. As I began to engage the man, three members of the crowd gently patted him on the back telling him to go away and not cause trouble. When I think back to what happened, I remember not just the man who spoke disrespectfully to my mother, but equally as important, the three other men who pushed him aside.
According to HarassMap co-founder Rebecca Chiao, “We want to praise our anti-harassment heroes and present a positive example for others who might be shy to speak up. Sometimes a person feels harassment is wrong but they don't know how to speak out. Or they are afraid of what might happen. By collecting stories from heroes, we hope to break these fears and insecurities by creating a sense of community support and encourage speaking out.”
Highlighting the stories of such heroes would not only provide role models for others who might feel helpless when witnessing a victim go through sexual harassment or assault as Rebecca mentioned, but will also provide greater context and debunk Orientalist stereotypes that all Muslim or Middle Eastern men are misogynistic. These hero stories also are a way to restore the dignity of Tahrir as a space where social justice is not just an aspiration, but an admirable- albeit imperfect- work in progress.
When I asked Rebecca how the revolution has changed her work, she pointed out two major differences. Before the uprising, it took roughly 2 weeks to plan and organize a community outreach day. “In this unstable climate,” she says, “… it seems every time we organize one, another crisis pops up and we have to cancel and reschedule.” Despite the instability, she also said that there is an outpouring of volunteers and people are much more enthusiastic about not only supporting HarassMap, but social causes across the board.
As HarassMap continues its outreach push to not only collect the stories of survivors, but also the stories of heroes, it is setting an interesting model for other movements addressing gender-based violence worldwide. By expanding the scope of its reporting platform, not only does the survivor have agency when s/he reports an incident, but the community is also encouraged to intervene as more of these hero stories begin to surface. HarassMap's hero stories also complicate the idea that women in the Middle East lack agency and that members of their community either condone or are indifferent toward cases of harassment. It is equally important to note that not all survivors of harassment have community members intervening to help them. HarassMap's heroes have the potential to create an ecosystem where their stories become the norm rather than the exception.
“The key to ending this phenomenon is that we as a society must stop ignoring it, stop blaming the victim, stop not wanting to get involved,” says Rebecca. Collecting the stories of HarassMap’s heroes is a critical first step.By Qamar Arastu, Aslan Media Contributor