EGYPT: Enough with sexual harassment!
It was this scene that inspired the campaigners: a woman in her 30s being molested by 16 men in the middle of the street where no onlooker dared to intervene until a taxi driver stopped by, got out of his car, took off his belt and whipped the harassers, who left their prey half-naked.
A journalist working for a popular youth magazine was there watching the whole scene. It stuck with him until the next editorial meeting, where he recounted the incident to his colleagues, raising the question of what should be done about sexual harassment that goes unnoticed in the Egyptian society. The answer materialized in a full-fledged campaign spearheaded by youths that aims at raising awareness against sexual harassment in public spaces.
Under the slogan “Respect yourself: Egypt still has real men,” the campaign tries to dissuade men from committing sexual harassment and in the meantime push them them to chase harassers whenever they see them.
“In the past, men were more gallant and protective. They used to arrest the harasser and punish him by shaving his head, but things are different now,” said Ahmed Salah, the campaign’s moderator. "Our campaign is directed to a passive society and to each man who thinks that nobody would stop him if he harassed a woman on the street. We want to tell the harasser to respect himself and that he will find a man to stand up to him on the street.”
The campaign forms groups of volunteers between the ages of 14 and 24 and is sponsored by the youth magazine Kelmetna, which is dedicated to the coverage of youth issues. Activists basically seek to get their message across by hitting the street and talking directly to men and women.
A recent survey has shown that 83% of Egyptian women reported exposure to verbal and sexual harassment. Harassed women have experienced men staring inappropriately at their bodies, inappropriate touching, sexually explicit comments, stalking and telephone stalking. Finding that almost 70% of harassed women are veiled, the study challenges the perception that puts the blame for harassment on women for wearing revealing outfits.
“We also target girls,” said 16-year-old activist Nour Hussein. “We tell them that they should not provoke men with their clothes or conduct on the street. In the meantime, we don’t want to put the blame on girls’ clothes. We tell them wear whatever you wish but just try to be moderate.”
Nour herself went through a situation that proved to her that harassment is not always the girl’s fault, as the patriarchal society claims.
Though veiled, Nour was recently hit on her backside by a harasser in a posh shopping mall on the outskirts of Cairo. “That was a month ago. I felt very insecure and this pushed me hard to join the campaign,” she said. “I used to hear about harassment but thought that it only happened to non-veiled girls; I never thought it could happen to me.”
Through regular sessions, the campaigners seek to arm girls with self-defense skills and raise awareness of sexual harassment and what lies behind it. The campaigners have also established a group on Facebook which has attracted around 19,000 members in a couple of months. On Facebook, campaigners initiate discussions on issues such as the reasons behind the proliferation of sexual harassment, protective methods against harassment, and molestation at the workplace.
Yet feminist critics hold that such initiatives are not enough to put an end to such practices, and that only a strict law criminalizing sexual harassment can solve the problem.
— Noha El-Hennawy, in Cairo
Photos: The activists making the victory sign at one of their training sessions; the campaign's poster. Credits: Kelmetna magazine)