An old, but still relevant, Sexual Harassment Article #endSH

Ali Azmy ( at the IWD Protest March 2011

I graduated from university in June 2009, and since I was studying journalism we were asked to work on a magazine as our graduation project. Each student had to work on an investigative piece as well. This was my work (and I got an A by the way… then again my university isn’t exactly known for its high educational standards)

This article was aiming to look at sexual harassment as a societal issue, the background on it and what is being done to counter it. Many initatives have come up since then, but unfortunately even though this was written two years ago, the situation remains the same. This is my contribution to blogging against Sexual Harassment Day.


Sexual Harassment; End the Epidemic NOW!

As a woman, have you ever walked down Egyptian streets and felt many pairs of eyes undressing you? Have you ever heard obscene comments about what someone wanted to do with your body? Have you ever gotten touched or groped  simply for walking on the street? As a man, have you ever thought that this is something your friend, mother, wife, sister or daughter is subjected to almost on a daily basis? In Egypt women regularly find themselves in these situations where they feel oppressed, powerless and objectified. Along the years this problem has been growing in both numbers and severity. In Egypt, 83 percent of Egyptian women and 98 percent of foreign women have been sexually harassed, but only 2 percent have reported it.


Severity of harassment; the question why?

The severity of the cases grew from random men or a small group of friends harassing women to mass sexual harassment cases. In the Feast holiday after Ramadan in 2007 downtown Cairo saw its first case of mass harassment where hundreds of men walked around harassing, touching and undressing women in the streets. During the same holiday the following year in Gamaa’et El Dowal Street, one of the biggest and busiest streets in Mohandessin, the same incident happened with an even larger number of men.

The Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights (ECWR) conducted a research on Sexual Harassment called “Clouds in Egypt’s Sky” that included a sample of 2020 Egyptian men and women from Cairo, Giza and Qalubiya. The results showed there are many forms of harassment taking place daily including touching, inappropriate noises, ogling of women’s bodies, verbal harassment of sexually explicit nature, stalking or following, phone harassment and indecent exposure. The results also showed that 46.1 % of Egyptian women and 52.3% of foreign women are exposed to harassment on a daily basis.

A twenty-three year old woman, who preferred to remain anonymous, shared an incident that happens often: as she walked on a busy street in Dokki and man on a bike started masturbating as she walked past and called her to come over.

Roughly, 49 percent of Egyptian and 51 percent of foreign women showed in the study that women of all ages are subjected to harassment while a majority of the male sample indicated that women in age groups 19-25 years old are the most susceptible to sexual harassment. According to the ECWR, the difference in men and women’s answers are likely related to their personal experiences.

In the study, it was clear that sexual harassment is not class-based and that women of all socio-economic classes are subjected to sexual harassment.

Most Egyptian people surveyed thought that women dressed in short skirts and t-shirts with bare arms were more likely to be subjected to sexual harassment while 44 percent of foreign women thought that unveiled women dressed modestly and veiled women were also likely to be harassed.

However, many people still think that how a woman is dressed has nothing to do with why they are being harassed and they attribute the problem to socio-economic conditions, sexual frustration and a general lack of respect for women.

In January 2009, a group of female students studying at the American University in Cairo (AUC) decided to try a social experiment where they dressed in black Neqab (covering they bodies and faces in loose black cloaks) and walked around some main streets in Zamalek and the downtown area by the Nile. Areeje Hindi, one of the participants, confirmed they were still subjected to harassment. (This was when the idea to dress up in Niqab as an experiment came to me for the first time by the way, I didn’t do it until April 2011 though)

“They were harassing us mainly talking about our eyes ‘what are these pretty eyes’ [Some men said]. We couldn’t believe that even though we were completely covered they still managed to find the one thing that was not and comment about it” Hindi said. “In spite of our attire we were being harassed like everyone else.”

“Even though we felt more protected walking in Neqab than we do wearing our normal clothes, my friends and I found it very disappointing that we were still harassed… What more can we wear and do?” Hindi wondered.

In the ECWR’s study examining if what women wear determine whether or not they are harassed they found that most Egyptian people surveyed thought that un-veiled women were more likely to be harassed. Despite the fact that women’s testimony, like Hindi’s, showed that veiled and women wearing the Neqab were harassed as well.

These results illustrate the contradiction of the society’s belief that what women are wearing is related to them getting harassed and the reality of what happens.

Yehia Wahdan, Member of Parliament told British television show Every Woman “the internet is [now] in every home, each home has a satellite dish, the whole world is accessible to us. There are things you see such as video clips or films that are imbalanced and it can confuse someone who is not ready for it. When they see naked women they will want to release their frustration”

In a similar interview, Abier El Barbary, a psychology professor at AUC said, “I think it is a multi-fasted problem and I think that frustration definitely does play a part in it, but it is a much bigger picture and much more complex than that.”

El Barbary explained that it is not just computers, the media and video clips but it is more about the fact that Egypt is going through a transition from the old school of thought to the more globalised and westernized school of thought. As a result there is a lot of exposure all around that people are having a hard time dealing with.


Here is the video where these quotes are from for more info and analysis of the problem

When asked about the root of why she thinks men harass women, Noha Roushdy, the first woman to file a sexual harassment case against an Egyptian man in court and win, told Daily News Egypt, “Everyone [attributes] harassment to repression, but I think it is oppression,” she says. “In psychological analysis, repression leads to depression and passiveness. There is political and economic repression [here] and no one has started a revolution. It [just] turns into more passivity. But the idea of oppression is what brought harassment out in society. Oppression makes people aggressive. Each oppressed person has an ambition to oppress someone else to feel a balance, to not feel weak. So the regime oppresses the people and the people are split. So the man will oppress the woman [whom] he feels is less than him. So I believe people are passive because they are repressed, but they are harassing others because they are oppressed.”


Effects of Harassment on women

According to the ECWR’s study, sexual harassment has many negative psychological, physical and economic effects on people subjected to it. Many women confirmed they got headaches, difficulty sleeping and bad dreams as well as a constant deep sense of violation, anger, pain, embarrassment, inability to act and sometimes depression.

One girl who chose to remain anonymous expressed that after a few incidents with harassment her trust in strangers and men decreased greatly, “I have become very paranoid about everyone around me and checking that they are not looking at me in a sexual way or touching themselves or trying to touch me,” She said, adding that this led her to avoid walking on the streets and sometimes even getting in taxis alone.

The economic and social effects of harassment included that 9.5 percent of Egyptian women and 22.4 percent of foreign women found that sexual harassment affects their productivity at work and the productivity of students at school. These negative effects include their lack of concentration and not being able to recall things they study. It also gave them a sense of insecurity and lack of confidence with dealing with the opposite sex.

Another girl who chose to remain anonymous said that being constantly subjected to harassment did not necessarily have a direct impact on her productivity in her studies. However, the constant fear of being harassed and the frustration felt at the whole situation sometimes got to her while she was trying to study, making it very hard to concentrate.


Harassment and Tourism; Is there a connection?

“I would definitely say that sexual harassment changes my perception of the Egyptian culture,” Lizzie Walmsley, a twenty year-old British girl who has been living in Cairo for three months said.

“Women have been strong enough to take the Pharaoh throne thousands of years ago and yet in Cairo today, a woman is unable to walk around the streets shopping for more than 10 minutes without some comment from a man about the way she looks or the what he wants from her. From the varied ages of the men/boys who are responsible for my experiences I’d suggest it’s a fairly integrated part of the Egyptian male socialisation and yet I have not met all Egyptian men. I had an image of Egypt as one of the most civilised societies the world has ever seen; and it was, a long time ago. Knowing some men think so little of women makes me think Egyptian culture has uncivilised itself” she added.

Similarly, Nehal Saad, an established Egyptian English language Tour Guide, always warns the tourist groups she accompanies about sexual harassment. She advises women to dress modestly but makes them aware that they will probably get subjected to it no matter what they decide to wear.

“Often tourists get offended from the common mentality that just because a woman is a foreigner she is easy and they also get in situations where they get groped. At the start usually they find it funny and flattering that they have that attention but most of the time it turns into harassment and they get a very negative perception of how Egyptian culture is.” Saad explained.

Egypt offers many historical, cultural and recreational touristic attractions to people worldwide. Around 15 percent of Egypt’s national income comes through tourism. Unfortunately, even though Egypt was once known as one of the safest and most hospitable tourist destinations now the Egyptian reputation of sexual harassment is starting to affect the industry and the way foreigners view Egyptian culture.

In the ECWR study, the sample included 109 foreign women who were living or travelling in Egypt for different purposes. The study showed that 66 percent of these women confirmed that their encounters with sexual harassment left a negative impact on how they viewed Egyptian society. Also, 7.3 percent said they would not return to Egypt because of it and 4.6 percent declared they would not advise their friends to visit Egypt.


Egyptian criminal law and sexual harassment

Within the current Egyptian Criminal Law there are three articles that can be applied in the cases of sexual harassment.

One of the laws is “Insulting” which is article 306 of the penal code. This law covers all types of insults including cat-calling and verbal harassments on the streets. It is considered a minor crime and tried in a partial court which has only one judge. The sentences of breaking that law range from a fine of LE 100 to one month in prison.

Another law deals with “Indecent Behaviour”, which is article 278 of the penal code. This is covered by one article in the section on sexual crimes and can be applied in cases of indecent exposure, following someone and stalking. It is considered a serious crime and is tired in the larger criminal court with three judges. The sentences of breaking this law range from a fine to three years in prison.

Another law that can be applied is “Sexual Assault”, which is article 268 of the penal code. It is considered a sexual crime and applies in the cases of touching and other physical harassment. Like the latter, it is tried in the large criminal court with three judges. When this law is broken sentences range from three to fifteen years in prison.

Such laws are not void of criticism, however. Problems and criticisms of these laws include the fact that it is difficult to prove harassment unless the harasser is taken to the police station on the spot and witnesses are willing to testify with the victim harassed: otherwise a case cannot be filed.

Other criticisms include that there is no direct law in the penal code specifically related to sexual harassment. According to ECWR’s research and analysis, the lack of direct mentioning of sexual harassment in the law results in a lack of awareness of its existence, as well as a lack of recognition of the problem, which makes it almost impossible to enforce.

The ECWR, media outlets and other groups have been pushing the parliament to discuss the problem openly and add a penal code directly relating to sexual harassment to the penal code.


Noha Roushdy: The social pioneer

Noha in the trial, Taken From Zeinobia's Blog

On June26th 2008 at 5:30 pm, Noha Roushdy, a twenty-seven year-old woman, and her friend were walking down a main street in Heliopolis when a man driving a car stretched out his arm, grabbed Roushdy and dragged her along with him before he let her go. Both girls, in spite of shock, chased the car and Roushdy jumped on the boot of the car to stop him while her friend went to get the police.

Even though many people on the street urged Roushdy to let the man go asking her to have some sympathy, judging her for being harassed, she insisted on taking the man, Sherif Gomaa Gibrial, to the police station to file an official complaint. A man on the street helped her take him to the station where the police at first were not helpful and refused to file a complaint without Roushdy’s father present.

Later in October 2008, Roushdy won the case she filed against Gibrial where he was sentenced to three years of imprisonment and fined LE 5,001 on Sexual Assault charges, surprisingly enough during the first hearing of the case. Roushdy refused to accept the civil damages of LE 5,001, saying that she was not looking for the money, and it was not her goal to give the aggressor’s family a hard time.

From that point Roushdy’s case attracted a lot of media attention with some people condemning Roushdy’s actions to take the case to court and sympathising with the man, while others were idolising Roushdy for standing up for her rights and defying the norms. This case stirred public opinion and made it easier for sexual harassment to be discussed as an issue giving the space to women and movements to act against it.

“ECWR believes that this sentence will restore confidence in the legal system’s ability to defend women subjected to such crimes, in every step of the process — from filing police reports, to investigation, to sentencing. Women can now rest assured that their rights will be protected,” a statement from the ECWR said.


Spreading awareness to make a difference

Ali Azmy ( at the IWD Protest March 2011

Many different movements have recently started discussing the problem of sexual harassment in the media even though it has been considered a taboo to even talk about it in social circles in the past.

The ECWR, established in 1996, with a goal to work on developing women’s legal and political rights, is one of the leading organizations actively working on the problem of sexual harassment. The ECWR organizes a campaign against sexual harassment through increasing public awareness in the media to apply pressure on the Ministry of Interior to enforce laws protecting women and adopting a new law specifically for protection against sexual harassment.

The ECWR conducted various researches on the effects of sexual harassment on victims, tourism and on women’s participation in the society. Their most recent research “Clouds in Egypt’s Sky” proved to be a success providing people with accurate results of how the problem is escalating day by day.

According to Rebecca Chiao from ECWR there has been a lot of development in the problem, “We have been running our campaign since 2005. When we started, we couldn’t even say the words ‘sexual harassment’.”

Nehad Abu El Omsan, the chair of the ECWR told Women News Network, “Now [women] are freer to talk and every one of them knows she is not alone and it is not her fault. This encourages the society to understand the situation and think about how to solve it.”

With facebook’s growing popularity as a social networking site, various groups started using it as a platform to channel their message across reaching various groups of people.

One of the first emerging groups is “Stop Sexual Harassment in Egypt” which was part of the “Bussi Project” (Look (to female) Project) established in the American University in Cairo (AUC). They started the group to provide women with the space to share their stories and encourage people to not only speak up but act on the issue. They organized different lectures, seminars and events at AUC and outside to bring people together and help find solutions to the problem. They also keep people updated with the ECWR’s research and movements on the issue.

“We also create a voice for those who feel voiceless through our annual play in which we collect true stories from women in our community,” said Yasmine Khalifa, a member of the Bussy Project Club.

“[The play] educates the audience about the issues women go through but at the same time it is entertaining, which makes the audience more receptive to hearing some of the stories they normally would not.” She added.

From there also came many other groups encouraging women to act on sexual harassment, in an attempt to change women’s perception of their situation as victims who do not have the power to do anything about it to citizens who have the power to use the law to protect their rights. There is an Arabic group called “H’atta law El Bent Ala’aa Malt” (Even if the Girl is Naked) which advocates that women have the right to wear what they want and that gives no one the right to harass them. The group uses a sarcastic tone in addressing the issue of sexual harassment on the street and in the work place.

Other groups have taken a hands-on approach to the issue, like “Ma’an le Qanoun Yah’my El Mara’ men Khatar El Tah’arosh Al Gensy” (Together for a law to protect the woman from the danger of Sexual Harassment). This group is working alongside the ECWR with a goal to produce a petition with a million signatures to the government demanding a new law to protect women from Sexual Harassment.

Another project being worked on by the ECWR and NiJel, a movement started by three American people who saw that we can use maps to tell facts and stories of communities, is the “HarassMap”. This project is a blog with a map where women can report where they have been harassed via SMS and it is uploaded on the blog, showing how severely harassment takes place all over the city and the need of a new law to protect women. It will also help demonstrate to officials where further protection is needed. [Update: This project was later taken on by a group of volunteers and outside the ECWR umbrealla]

Sawi Culture Wheel Anti Sexual Harassment Poster 2009

Sawy Culture Wheel also participated in spreading awareness on sexual harassment by placing signs in the Egyptian streets warning men that if they failed to take action to prevent harassment, their mother, sister or daughter could be the next victim. May 18, 2007, was declared “The Sexual Harassment Awareness Day” by Sawy Cultural Wheel in cooperation with the ECWR. Almost 1000 people showed up at the event where they invited the media and bands to perform to attract youth.

Media outlets have also taken part of the trend of calling upon women to stand up to sexual harassment. Community Times, Egypt’s number one information magazine in English, in April 2009 started dedicating a section each month publishing stories from readers to highlight the epidemic of sexual harassment in Egypt. Following Community Times’ initiative What Women Want magazine decided to participate in that too.

Kelmetna, Egyptian teen magazine, also launched a campaign aiming to spread awareness on sexual harassment with the male readers especially with a slogan of “Respect Yourself: Egypt still has real men”.

A group of advertising and public relations students at Modern Sciences and Arts University (MSA) decided to launch a campaign promoting the establishment of a law protecting women from sexual harassment as their graduation project. They also organized an event promoting the new law protecting women against sexual harassment in the Sawy Cultural Wheel in June 2009 featuring bands and guest speakers. “We believe in the cause and are personally affected by it. Another thing that made us want to run this campaign was that more than 60% of people did not know their rights and did not know that they can report harassment. We wish to empower women through it.” Said Amina Basiouny one of the members of the group.

It is obvious that this problem is not going unnoticed by the public and that many diverse bodies are doing a lot of work to make the problem noticed as well as getting the government to deal with it. Social change is not an impossible task, but it is up to people to make it happen and take initiative because if we do not, then who will?

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