The Widespread Plague of Sexual Harassment in Egypt

An Egyptian protestor holds a picture of Samira Ibrahim, an Egyptian woman who brought the case against an army doctor, Ahmed Adel, accused of conducting forced "virginity tests" on female protestors, during a demonstration in solidarity with Ibrahim in Cairo on 16 March 2012. (Photo: AFP - Mohammed Hossam)

By: Bisan Kassab, Rana Mamdouh

Published Thursday, September 20, 2012

In a country long infamous for rife sexual harassment, it is revealed that abuse has been used as a tool of intimidation and repression by the authorities and that the majority of the public, women included, believe that women invite this behavior.

Cairo – Egyptians continue to amaze people around the world. One of the most conservative peoples on the planet - according to the US-based Gallup center - engage in sexual harassment, publicly and sometimes even collectively. This practice has gotten so bad, that sexual harassment has now become a prominent feature of religious festivals, no less.

In a society where Muslims are the overwhelming majority, even Eid al-Fitr [the Muslim holiday at the end of Ramadan] saw NGOs launching preemptive efforts against sexual harassment, which was rife last Eid. These included the Fouada Watch initiative, which established a hotline “operating around the clock for men and women to report incidents of sexual harassment, verbal abuse or assaults against women during the religious festival.”

But the earliest reported incidents of collective sexual harassment were back in Eid al-Fitr of 2006. In downtown Cairo, large groups of adolescents and youths would charge at isolated women, all looking for intimate parts of their bodies to grope. Similar assaults took place in the upscale neighborhood of Muhandiseen.

One explanation of these incidents is that “the impoverished youths involved in the assault used sexual harassment to attract attention to themselves,” according to Suhair Abdul-Moneim, a criminal policy expert at the National Center for Social and Criminological Research, affiliated to the Ministry of Social Solidarity, who spoke to Al-Akhbar.

Yet there are indications that the practice of sexual harassment originated from the authorities themselves, nearly a year before these incidents. In May 2005, the police recruited paid gangs to sexually harass women taking part in marches in downtown Cairo. The protests were called by the opposition to encourage people to boycott a referendum on constitutional amendments.

Back then, five human rights groups said that the testimonies they took directly from victims and eyewitnesses had established that “the assaults perpetrated by the security personnel and the gangs of the National Democratic Party (the ruling party at the time), were not random incidents, but were carried out on specific orders aimed at humiliating women.”

The human rights groups asserted that “the assaults against women in the demonstrations happened under the watchful eyes of uniformed security officers, and often on their direct orders.” After this incident, sexual harassment spread across the country like wildfire.

Shaima, a twenty-something woman, spoke to Al-Akhbar about sexual harassment she experienced about five years ago. She said, “It was on a bus on my way home. There were three young men who tried to harass me, taking advantage of the crowded bus. I had to get off, but the men followed me and I soon found them surrounding me in the street. One of them pulled me by my hair. When I finally got home, I was hysterical, and decided to start wearing the headscarf from then on just so no one can pull me by my hair again.”

Sexual harassment as a weapon used by the authorities in trying to break up protests became a model to be followed, it seems. Organized groups targeted women participating in a demonstration organized by activists to protest the incidents of sexual harassment last June – which in turn had taken place during protests in Tahrir Square, following the acquittal of aides to the former interior minister of killing revolutionary protesters.

Yet remarkably, a practice as widespread as it is, from the view point of the Center for Social and Criminal Research, it is “not a societal phenomenon worth studying,” according to Suhair Abdul-Moneim. Instead, she believes that sexual harassment in Egypt “still involves individual cases linked to intertwining factors, such as poverty, unemployment, late marriage and impunity, as well as the lawlessness that has prevailed since the revolution, leading to the aggravation of many of the problems afflicting Egyptian society.”

The Egyptian Center for Women's Rights, a non-governmental organization, prepared a draft law to tackle sexual harassment. The draft stipulates that “whoever harasses others, whether male or female, against their will, shall be punishable by up to one year in prison, and/or a fine of up to 2,000 Egyptian Pounds.” ($328).

Harassment is defined by the bill as unwanted sexual advances such as “touching, following, stalking and so forth; direct comments that might be sexual or obscene; or indirect comments through telephone, the internet or mobile phone messages containing pictures, texts or symbols of a sexual nature.” The bill also proposes tougher punishments for those who use any leverage they may have over the victim, exploit work conditions, use weapons or exploit minors or people with physical or mental disabilities and illnesses for this purpose.

Omaima Kamel, advisor to the president for women’s affairs, expressed her enthusiasm for this bill to be passed, but said that, most probably, no new law will be passed in this regard before the promulgation of the new constitution. She also confirmed to Al-Akhbar her intention to propose an extensive study on sexual harassment in the country, to be sponsored by the president’s office, which will coordinate the different state agencies, stressing that a bill on sexual harassment must come only after this study is conducted.

Kamel, who is a member of the supreme body of the Freedom and Justice Party, rejected statements attributed to Azza al-Jarf, the Party’s MP in the dissolved parliament, in which she blamed women’s “immodest clothing” for harassment. Citing the results of a study conducted by the Department of Forensic Medicine in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Cairo in 2000 on the causes of sexual harassment, she stressed that how women dress plays only a marginal role in these incidents.

Meanwhile, the figures collected through Fouada Watch’s hotline, announced after Eid, demonstrate that sexual harassment goes far beyond being individual cases. Fouada Watch said that it received “a total of 53 calls, including 35 that were verified, from girls and women aged 18 to 25 years.”

According to the anti-harassment initiative, all these calls were made to report incidents of sexual harassment, where these young women were touched on intimate parts of their bodies, and came under a barrage of obscenities with assaulters running after them. They said that the latter, who were usually boys anywhere from 8 to 18 years old, at most, had engaged in agitated and collective harassment against them.

Incidents of collective harassment were also witnessed in front of Metro Cinema in downtown Cairo, as well as incidents of verbal and sexual assault targeting women along the Nile Corniche, starting from Maspero, the state television building near Tahrir Square in the center of the capital, all the way to al-Mazallat area in the Qalyubiyah governorate adjacent to Cairo.

The latest data from the National Center for Criminal and Social Research in 2006 indicates that about 20,000 cases of rape and sexual harassment are perpetrated in Egypt every year, with two cases of rape or harassment taking place almost every hour, on average.

The data from the Egyptian Center for Women's Rights, a non-governmental organization, shows that 68 out of 100 women have been victims of sexual harassment - physical and verbal – at their workplaces. In addition, a survey conducted by the Center revealed that 98 percent of female foreign tourists have experienced harassment while in Egypt.

Studies have also shown that the vast majority of Egyptians believe that sexual harassment against women is on the rise in Egypt, because of economic conditions, the lack of awareness and the lack of religious values. In one study, 62 percent of male respondents said that they had engaged in sexually harassment against women, while 83 percent of female respondents said they had been sexually harassed.

This is while 53 percent of male respondents said that women were responsible for sexual harassment, saying they dressed immodestly. With some women agreeing with this claim, the survey said that the majority of respondents accept the view that women who wear tight clothes deserve to be harassed. A majority also said that women should be at home by eight o'clock in the evening.

Of the 83 percent who had been sexually harassed, only 2.4 percent reported it to the police. The majority of female respondents said that they believed no one could help in that regard, while some said they were afraid that reporting harassment might damage their reputations. According to the study, the overwhelming majority of women did nothing about the harassment they had been exposed to.

Grassroots initiatives to combat harassment, particularly those started online, may be an indication that silence over this matter is coming to an end. A few days before Eid al-Fitr, a website was launched to track and map sexual harassment incidents, by recording them and uploading them to the internet in order to expose the perpetrators and highlight the extent to which this practice has spread.

The website also encourages the use of graffiti for the purpose, and for people to report incidents of sexual harassment to the website itself. The online initiative also called on “honest police officers and online communities to support campaigns by individuals and civil society groups to tackle this problem.”

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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