Video Experiment Gauges Public Response to Sexual Harassment
Cairo - A man harasses a woman. Offended, she wants to take him to the police station. Passersby interfere. She tells them about the obscenity she has been subjected to. They tell her to move on. One man makes a comment about the way she’s dressed and her hair. The intervention is against her, not the man who harassed her.
It’s a common scene in Cairo’s streets. The woman, the victim of verbal and physical sexual harassment, is the one to be blamed. Rarely is the man, the culprit, held accountable.
One of three Bussy Project street experiments, gauging the reaction to harassment.
The video above shows a tame version of this common incident. It’s not real, though. The man and the two women are actors. The passersby who interfere are real. Their reactions are real and are the purpose of this semi-anthropological experiment.
The Bussy Project, the group behind this video, has two more experiments posted online. One reverses the role to have the woman harass the man and another involves the harassed woman wearing a full face veil. In all cases, the victim was the one to be blamed by passersby and urged to carry on moving.
Sally Zohney, who played the victim in the video above and then switched sides in another experiment, was terrified as the victim. Her colleague said that he knew he was in the wrong but people’s reactions gave him the confidence to do anything. He pushed it to the extreme, with more obscene gestures and comments as the supportive crowd tried to end his altercation with Zohney. At one point, not caught on camera, he pretended to unzip his pants. No one in the crowd that initially supported his denial even acknowledged it and they remained hostile to Zohney.
Earlier in the day, Zohney played the harasser, an unusual sight for a woman in Egypt. As the aggressor, people stood by her side, blaming the victim for objecting. She recalled making contradictory statements without affecting the crowd’s support for her. They reinforced her verbal assault and ridicule of the victim.
She felt empowered and kept testing the crowd’s support. Actually, all the actors who played harassers reported the same feeling of empowerment.
The experiment changed Zohney’s views on harassment. She used to participate in awareness campaigns, explaining to communities why harassment is wrong. This unwavering support to the harassers led her to believe that the nation-wide problem won’t be solved through awareness. “People know it’s wrong. It won’t stop unless the harasser has something to fear … like imprisonment,” she said.
A deterrent, whether through a more violent or confrontational response from women or preferably an enforceable law, would be the answer.
Intended mainly to gauge reactions to harassment, the experiments revealed more about Egyptian society and its obsession to end any conflict or disruption regardless of justice or resolution. The maddening obsession is to carry on, keep things at an accepted level of “normal.” The support of aggressors at the expense of justice-seeking victims goes beyond social norms that justify harassment of women. The blaming of the victim in these experiments surpasses conventional understanding of the treatment of women in Egyptian society.
While they could provide starting data for a more structured sociological enquiry, the combination of factors observed in the Bussy Project videos go some way toward explaining sexual harassment, which is increasing in troubling frequency and aggressiveness.
“This is how harassment escalated … through impunity,” said Zohney.