Sexual harassment has been endemic in Egypt for decades with 99 per cent of Egyptian females experiencing harassment and violence at least once in their lifetime, according to the findings of a UN study.
One of the biggest problems is that being in a conservative society, survivors of sexual assault are shamed into silence, with their families hushing up the incidents for fear of being socially stigmatised.
However, 2020 saw a reckoning over assailants. The year saw the birth of an Egyptian Me Too movement that encouraged victims of sexual assault to speak up.
It started with an Instagram account, Assault Police, which told the story of a male AUC student who raped, assaulted and blackmailed several females. The aim of the account was to encourage the victims to tell their stories. However, the account became an anonymous platform that encouraged victims of dozens of perpetrators to tell their stories and created a powerful Egyptian Me Too movement.
The same movement uncovered a gang rape horror story known as the Fairmont incident, in which the sons of a number of well-known families in Egypt drugged raped a female in a hotel room in 2014. They recorded the incident and sent the videos to their friends. The account encouraged the victim to tell her story after six years of silence, leading to the arrest of the assaulters.
As the campaign gained momentum, a law was passed in August to protect the privacy of victims. Article 306 of Egypt’s penal code declares that those found guilty of verbal sexual harassment in a private or public place will be sentenced to a minimum of six months in prison and a fine of no less than LE3,000. If offenders repeat an act of verbal sexual harassment they will get a minimum of one year in jail and will be fined not less than LE5,000.
Unwanted sexual contact is also penalised by the law. According to the law, a sexual harasser will be given a minimum one year in prison and a fine between LE10,000 and LE20,000. If sexual harassment occurs at work and is directed by a manager or someone in a position of authority, that person can be sentenced to a minimum of two years in prison and fined no less than LE20,000. The maximum punishment for this crime is five years in prison and a fine of LE50,000.
Entitled “Ways and Methods to Eliminate Sexual Harassment in Egypt” a UN study showed that surveyed females and males agree that the enforcement of the law addressing sexual harassment was perceived as a first step in addressing the problem.
“Moreover, the National Council for Women (NCW) in conjunction with the Ministry of Justice has prepared a report that sheds light on the legislative framework for the current legal protection of women under the constitution and national laws and within the framework of the national strategies launched by Egypt and the ratified conventions and charters,” Isis Mahmoud, head of the NCW training department, said.
Mahmoud said the council had created an ombudsman office hotline 15115, a WhatsApp phone number 01007525600, and the office’s e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org for complaints.
This is in addition to the General Secretariat for Mental Health number 02-26186911 that girls and women can report to, about any act of sexual harassment made against them.
Another significant development was both Al-Azhar and Dar Al Iftaa (the country’s main Islamic advisories) issuing statements stressing that female attire has no connection with assaults and asking victims of such crimes to report their abusers “because silence only serves to spread such crimes and nourish the societal conditions that make them acceptable”.
While the UN report noted that 75.7 per cent of women who had been sexually harassed said it had occurred while they were wearing conservative clothing and no makeup, male respondents cited women “wearing tight clothes” (96.3 per cent) and women who “do not conform to religious ethics regarding their appearance” (97.5 per cent) as the main reasons for sexual harassment.
The NCW has also been keen to combat all kinds of gender-based violence against women. The latest 16-day campaign was launched last month aiming at eliminating violence against women including cyber bullying.
According to the data available for domestic violence, incidences in the 2014 the Demographic Health Survey reveal that 36 per cent of married women between age (15-49) have experienced physical violence since the age of 15.
Despite this year’s advances, violence against women in Egypt is widespread, and male supremacy is the accepted norm. Such inequalities are considered the basis for domestic violence and exploitation of women. Violence remains a fact in their lives which is rarely discussed.
“Only by understanding the various dimensions of the Egyptian culture which regulates violence against women, can we develop programmes and interventions to empower women to refuse and resist this violence,” head of the Egyptian National Council for Women Maya Morsy said.
Also, the NCW has developed a national anti-gender-based violence (GBV) strategy in conjunction with the United Nations Population Fund, formerly the United Nations Fund for Population Activities, the UN agency aimed at improving reproductive and maternal health worldwide.
“UNFPA also provided additional support to NCW and the Ministry of Health and Population and other relevant institutions to implement progressively a package of essential services such as protection, health, counselling and legal aid for females who are survivors of sexual harassment,” Mahmoud said.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 14 January, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.