The American University in Cairo (AUC) this week organised “MySafeUni Day”, part of the university’s SpeakUp Dialogue Series it launched in November and which is designed to raise awareness about sexual harassment and to support national and global efforts related to the safety of college campuses in partnership with other institutions and prominent influencers.
“Sexual harassment is not an Egyptian issue but a human issue. We are collaborating with the National Council for Women, friends from Egypt and abroad and experts to make university campus safe,” AUC President Francis Ricciardone said at the beginning of the day.
Ricciardone explained that AUC’s latest measures to combat sexual harassment included changing the name of the office to which students submit complaints of sexual harassment to the Office of Institutional Equity which reports directly to the office of the president.
It is also now mandatory that every AUC community member, including professors, students, administrative personnel and even vendors receive online training designed to raise awareness about sexual harassment.
The role of leading higher education institutions such as AUC is paramount in raising awareness and addressing the great problems of our time, according to Ricciardone.
A multi-country survey conducted in 2017 by UN Women in the Middle East and North Africa showed that 40-60 per cent of women in the region have experienced some form of harassment and about 30-64 per cent of the men interviewed admitted to having perpetuated harassment, according to Christine Arab, representative of UN Women in Egypt who presented the results of the survey in one of the recent SpeakUp sessions.
In the sessions, some students from AUC suggested ways to make the campus free of harassment.
For Youssef Hashem “it’s important to always have students involved in any kind of discussion because students are the main stakeholders of any university.”
However, Hashem, who is president of the AUC’s Debate Society, a student-led organisation, added that there was a problem with the discussion itself “because we always attack the phenomenon rather than come up with solutions to deal with it.
“We won’t have a final solution of course since this isn’t a topic that can be solved in one night or one day. This is something that needs to be always enhanced, always tackled and always discussed.”
One of the solutions that would help according to Omar Samra, adventurer, entrepreneur and motivational speaker, is introducing an education element for kids.
Samra works at equipping kids with leadership skills. Part of the project is a programme called “My Body is My Body”. It allows kids at a very young age to understand the boundaries of their body and take ownership of it. The idea is imparted to them in the simplest way: through the lyrics of songs they study.
In another session students performed a play entitled Enseeh (Forget Him) which explores the issue of sexual harassment in the region from multiple perspectives: families and couples, bystanders, victims and perpetrators, men and women, power and incapacity.
Enseeh tells the story of Alia, 21, a rape victim who cannot get over the incident that took place when she was only 17. In the 10- minute play the rapist is seen standing behind Alia like her shadow but no one else can see him except her. The play concludes with Alia deciding to let go of the memory and to go on with her life.
Enseeh is written by Nour Al Captan, a 19- year-old who told Al-Ahram Weekly that even though the story is fictional it shows how the girls carry the memories of the experience of rape and harassment all their life.
Youssef Al Ghannam, 22, an AUCian who participated in Enseeh, said that “theatre is a simple tool to raise awareness for coming generations. Awareness and education for females on how to deal with sexual harassment are the main pillars to help them to break the social taboos that affect them all their lives.”
That was the focus of the address given by the opera singer Gala El Hadidi in one session. El Hadidi recounted how she was harassed once in Berlin by a fan who proposed to her and when she refused his advances he kept on following her everywhere. Later she decided to talk to him directly and bravely and put an end to being the victim.
“Anything that happens without your consent is called harassment but it is up to you to make the choice to not be a victim or take control of your emotions. Walk straight into that main door and take control of your lives. Do you really want to live as a victim all your life?” She asked in the discussion.
El Hadidi told the Weekly that she was enthusiastic to participate in the MySafeUni Daybecause she noticed that harassment is talked about “everywhere”.
Over the next months, the SpeakUp Dialogue Series will address several issues related to sexual harassment, including “Safe, inclusive and diverse workspaces”, and “a legal framework and violence against women”.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 8 April, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly