The war against sexual harassment rages on in Egypt
Cairo - As Ghaydaa Sabry braves downtown Cairo, explaining how street peddlers often ogle her to the point of “getting into my pants”, she suddenly turns, screaming.
“You animal!” she yells as she punches and kicks a young man who had just passed by. She struck at the harasser as a group of men rushed him off to save him from her angry fists.
“It’s over,” one of them says, to which she indignantly calls out, “If this had happened to your sister, would you say, ‘It’s over’?”
She walks off, palpitating, pale and visibly shaken despite the bravado she tries so hard to project.
“He touched my leg, but I tried not to hit him too hard because he’s just a kid,” said Sabry, 22.
“I revere violence,” she says, giggling but looking nervous.
Sabry’s incident is indicative of life in Egypt. According to an April 2013 survey conducted by the UN Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, 99.3% of Egyptian women say they experienced some form of sexual harassment. Touching accounted for 96.5% of the cases, followed by verbal harassment at 95.5%.
Sabry’s physical reaction grew out of the Amaan (“Safety”) Campaign she established in January 2014 with the help of professional mixed martial arts trainers to teach women fundamentals of self-defence.
“If I’m the one who is being harassed, then I’m the one who should hit back,” she said.
Monica Ibrahim, communications manager at HarassMap, said physically fighting harassment is one measure women can take, but her group takes a different approach.. HarassMap uses online reporting and mapping technology to support community mobilisation effort to break the silence on the issue of sexual harassment.
“The target of HarassMap is the silent bystander,” Ibrahim aid. “Many women want to speak out but receive little to no support from bystanders.”
She acknowledged that, thanks to the efforts of civic organisations, sexual harassment is now talked about.
“The mob attacks in Tahrir Square have turned the issue into a topic of public debate, “ she noted, also citing a June 2014 sexual harassment law as a milestone in shaping public perception of the issue as a crime and influencing social behaviour surrounding it.
In January 2013, during demonstrations marking the anniversary of the January 25th uprising, Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment/ Assault (OpAntiSH) received 19 reports of group sexual assaults against women in Tahrir Square, which included life-threatening violence in some cases.
OpAntiSH, a collaboration of individuals, organisations and initiatives, was established in November 2012 with the aim to end mob sexual assaults against women in Tahrir Square and the surrounding area. Less than six months later, the group reported at least 50 cases of mob sexual assaults in the square during protests calling for the removal of Muhammad Morsi as president.
They reported that “mobs of 20-30-year-olds would split into two groups, form a circle around a girl or a group of girls and then begin to assault them in an airtight pattern”, leaving several women bleeding and requiring hospitalisation.
Convicted harassers face prison sentences of six months to five years and could be fined 50,000 Egyptian pounds ($6,580).
While Ibrahim concedes that the law now encouraged women to speak out, as opposed to the silence that allowed even the worst violations to go unreported, she says that simply establishing harassment as a crime is not enough.
“There needs to be more serious application of the law, now that the issue has become more visible,” Ibrahim said.
Dalia Abdel Hameed, gender officer at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, contends that violent collective sexual attacks against women are not restricted to political gatherings. They occur during celebrations or even on the subway, where men are present in large numbers.
“In light of the militarisation of the public space and the crackdown on activism via the anti-protest law, which restricts the chances of gathering and organisation, it may seem that the occurrence of such collective attacks and rape has decreased,” she said, “but there is really no way of verifying this claim.”
Security forces have long used sexual assault to quash political dissent. In May 2005 outside the Journalists Syndicate, security forces stood by as plain-clothes government operatives assaulted four women protesting constitutional amendments that consolidated Hosni Mubarak’s dictatorship.
Prosecutors failed to bring charges against the perpetrators and the media blamed the victims for allegedly “exposing” their bodies.
The chaos following Mubarak’s removal brought up other issues, including “virginity tests” conducted by military forces on female protesters following the violent dispersal of another Tahrir demonstration. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who was then a military intelligence officer, defended the practice, arguing that it shielded soldiers from rape allegations.
Much like the situation under Mubarak, today the “military dictatorship suffocates dissent, criminalising the freedom of gathering and expression but at the same time it wants to appear as champions of women’s rights, so they issued the (anti-harassment) law,” said Abdel Hameed.
“Even though this is good, it is only a partial measure. It is also risky to make gains from a law encoded by presidential decree not through an elected parliament,” she maintained.
For Sabry, history continues to repeat itself.
“Each party to the conflict uses sexual harassment to apply pressure, to terrify women from participating and to pressure their brothers and fathers to keep them home and preferably stay with them,” she said.
“But something changed inside us after the revolution,” Sabry concluded defiantly. “We’ll continue to fight back to reclaim the street.”