Challenging sexual harassment in Egypt

Sunday 22/01/2017
A Facebook photo shows women participating in the anti-harass­ment initiative. (@domiat.anti.harassment)

Cairo - The initiative In Yester­day’s Dresses When the Streets Were Safe aims to challenge the notion that women in Egypt are being sexually harassed because of the way they dress.

Begun by Egyptian activist Hadia Abdel-Fattah and photographer Jihad Saad, the initiative involved taking pictures of women, from a variety of backgrounds, wearing short dresses and exposed shoul­ders as well as women wearing the hijab and what would be consid­ered average attire. The pictures are available on the Facebook page of the anti-harassment initiative, We Won’t Keep Silent on Harass­ment: domiat.anti.harassment/.

“I looked for original and shock­ing ideas because I was seeking some depth in my approach to women’s issues. I wanted to create ripples in a still pond,” Abdel-Fat­tah said.

She said she wanted to refute the argument that women’s choice of clothes is what naturally leads to harassment. She had women in the project wear vintage 1960s dresses and walk along streets in Cairo. None who did so were harassed, she said.

Abdel-Fattah said In Yesterday’s Dresses When the Streets Were Safe was started within the context of the UN campaign against gender-based violence but that she and Saad were working independently and self-financed the project.

Abdel-Fattah, 29, previously worked with civil society organi­sations focusing on the rights of women and children.

She pointed out that many wom­en in Egypt choose to be veiled or wear the hijab and that the highest percentage of women being sexu­ally harassed tend to be found in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where many are completely veiled. The project garnered much media at­tention and controversy with oppo­nents saying it encouraged sexual harassment.

“I don’t bother about those who oppose the idea or even those who insult me. These reactions indicate that the initiative succeeded in shocking society and by so doing realised its objective,” Abdel-Fat­tah said. “It exposed the problem and created debate. The important thing is that everyone realises that our clothes are not behind sexual harassment.”

Some experts have linked the in­crease in sexual harassment to what they said was a decline in moral val­ues among young people, rigid re­ligious discourse, frequent viewing of violent films and the widespread use of various degrees of nakedness in advertisements. Others claim the causes were the increasing num­bers of working women and their taste in clothes.

Saad previously turned his lens on violence against women. He did a project using a female model from Cairo wearing make-up designed to look like bruises on her face and body as if she had been a vic­tim of domestic violence. He said he wanted to denounce violence against women from within the family unit.

Abdel-Fattah said In Yesterday’s Dresses When the Streets Were Safe was one of many projects she has lined up related to violence against women.