Sexual harassment, chaos: Cairo's main metro station bears brunt of closures

Reem Gehad , Thursday 13 Nov 2014

Station under Tahrir Square has been closed since August 2013 - putting a strain on other central stations and millions of passengers daily

A photo of crowds in Al-Shohada station shot in August 2013 widely-circulated on social media.

A woman holds her baby close to her chest, bracing for the train to stop at Al-Shohada metro station, the only stop where Cairo's 3.5 million daily subway passengers can change trains.

"Let us come down first, people!" several passengers inside the train cry out, as the doors open in front of a dense crowd, impatient to escape the packed station, heat and noise during rush hour.

The pleas, however, are usually in vain and the scene erupts into chaos as passengers rush into the train. As they do so, many are pushed or fall, while many others shout in frustration, including women – who suffer at the hands of sexual harassers.

Al-Shohada, located in Cairo's major downtown Ramses Square, became the only exchange stop between the city's two underground lines after Sadat Station was shut down on 14 August 2013.

Sadat, located in the city's iconic Tahrir Square, was completely closed for "security concerns" following a deadly wave of nationwide unrest after security forces violently dispersed major sit-ins held by supporters of ousted Islamist president Mohamed Morsi, killing hundreds.

It was speculated that the authorities closed the station to prevent pro-Morsi supporters from using the fast and cheap underground transport to mobilise large protests in the square. For many Fridays after the dispersals, the army closed off Tahrir to stop any demonstrations from reaching it.

Even though media reported that the station was shut down for "security reasons," the interior ministry did not officially comment on the issue. Meanwhile, the Egyptian Company for Metro Management and Operation repeatedly said in response to complaints that it was awaiting instructions from the interior ministry to reopen Sadat.

A spokesman for the metro company, Ahmed Abdel-Hady, told Ahram Online that his company was ready to begin "operating the station within two hours of an order being issued to reopen it." He said the company carries out the orders of the "security apparatus."

But a spokesman for the interior ministry, Hani Abdel-Latif, told Ahram Online that the issue falls under the authority of the ministry of transportation.

This contradicts past events which have shown that the interior ministry has influence over the city's metro activity. For example, on 8 November all first-line trains did not stop at Saray Al-Qobba station in east Cairo for the day, following instructions by the interior ministry, citing security reasons.

Local media has suggested opening Sadat Station for exchanges only, while keeping its doors to Tahrir closed. However, this has not been implemented.

Dreaded station

For women, Al-Shohada is not only overcrowded – it's also a spot where hands can easily grope sensitive body parts and never be identified in the thick crowd.

On 10 October 2013, a woman named Karoline Kamel wrote a public note on Facebook that drew attention from many Egyptian social media users to the severity of sexual harassment at Al-Shohada.

"I do not remember how I came out of the carriage, but I remember well how I was involuntarily frozen for 10 minutes, like many women around me, trying to move across the platform to the ticket machines," she wrote.

"We saw huge numbers of men coming to ride the metro [trying to pass by the women's carriages located in the middle of the train] … and heard shouts behind us about someone who fell on the tracks, and the speakers were warning passengers of overcrowdedness. I felt terrified.

Then hands started messing with any parts of our bodies they could reach. A girl beside me was crying and calling, 'please God!'"

The anti-sexual harassment initiative Shoft Taharosh (Arabic for "I Saw Harassment") told Ahram Online that reports of sexual harassment in the metro have "risen dramatically" since the closure of Sadat Station.

Fathi Farid, a coordinator for the initiative, said incidents have ranged from "verbal harassment to pulling parts of women's bodies," with mob assaults also being documented. His initiative doesn't have an estimate of the number of similar incidents at Al-Shohada, but he said they've received "tens" of reports.

In addition, Farid said authorities have barred the initiative's volunteers from being present on the platforms to tackle the harassment problem, citing the "country's current situation" as an excuse.

He said the group has addressed police and metro authorities several times to tackle the problem, only to be told security personnel are adequately present and working on the issue. However, Farid said the initiative hasn't seen any "real procedures or clear plans" to solve the problem.

Meanwhile, many people have sought other forms of transport as an alternative, even if it means a longer route or higher fare (a metro ticket only costs LE1, about $0.14).

Islam Barakat, 27, told Ahram Online that he has changed his daily route to work to avoid overcrowded underground platforms. He now gets off the metro at Opera Station, one stop before Sadat, and takes a public bus to his work near downtown. He used to change routes underground before the station's closure.

Several Facebook pages have been launched to call for reopening Sadat Station, while many reports over the past year have stated dates for the station's reopening – only to later be proven false.

Like Sadat, Giza Station was also closed on 14 August 2013, as clashes broke out in the neighbourhood and news circulated that pro-Morsi demonstrators were planning to set up a sit-in just outside the station on Haram Street.

Calm was soon restored to the area, but the station didn't reopen until July 2014, almost a year later.

Officials have hinted that Sadat could remain closed for much longer still.

Ali Fadali, head of the Egyptian Company for Metro Management and Operation, told privately-owned Al-Hayat TV in September that "only God knows" when Sadat Station will be reopened.


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