Sexual harassment in Egypt: The wall of silence is coming down

Yasmine Fathi , Friday 31 Dec 2010

Sexual harassment in today's Egypt is so pervasive that many women have come to face the streets with dread. But as the conspiracy of shame and silence fractures, the harassers' day of reckoning may be around the corner

Sexual Harassment
A 2006 demonstration against sexual harassment in front of the Egyptian Press Syndicate (Photo by Hossam el-Hamalawy)

Schoolteacher Mai Soliman was on her way to work, when she found herself surrounded by a group of young men, as she was walking the short distance from her parked car to the school. Before she knew it a circle of teenage boys had formed around her, and they started shouting lewd and abusive remarks about her various body parts.

“I was so upset, I spent the whole day shaken and dazed,” remembers Soliman, 30. “Harassment has become intolerable in Egypt, and we women don’t know what to do anymore. My maid has even started wearing the Niqab [full veil], in attempt to make her invisible when walking the streets.”

Invisible! That’s what a growing number of Egyptian women wish they could become as they brave the country’s increasingly hostile streets.

But things might be looking up soon. A taskforce of 23 NGOs and human rights organizations have banded together and produced the draft of a set of amendments to sexual crime related articles of the 1937 penal code. By stiffening penalties against sexual offenders, and criminalizing all forms of sexual harassment, the draft’s proponents hope to create a climate of deterrence to harassers and provide greater security for women.

“The wall of silence that has surrounded the issue of sexual harassment and prevented many women from standing up to it, is coming down,” says Magda Botrous, a researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), one of the organizations working within the taskforce.

“We will no longer take the abuse,” added Botrous.

Crimes of a sexual nature are criminalized in three different sections of the penal code. In Section Four, “rape and sexual assaults” are mentioned.” In section five, kidnapping and rape are criminalized and section seven criminalizes “slander and defamation of character.” None of these however, criminalize or punish sexual harassment specifically.

“This is not good enough for us,” says Botrous. “What we want is a comprehensive law that puts all sexual crimes under one piece of legislation,” explains Botrous.

Indeed, the task force has already consulted with four of the country’s biggest legal experts and discussed their ideas with various organizations working in the field of human rights, and more specifically, women’s rights, until they came up with a final draft of proposed legislation.

The most crucial amendment will come in section four of the penal code, where “sexual assault and immoral behavior,” will be replaced with “sexual assaults” as the title. Under this heading the draft sponsors have included all crimes that they identify as sexual in nature, in all their possible forms, thus covering everything from phone harassment, to indecent gestures and touching, all through to kidnapping and rape – all identified as sexual crimes, and punished by a range of penalties ranging from stiff fines to jails terms, including life sentences.

But it is perhaps the amendment to article 269 of the penal code, which will bring the greatest relief to victims of sexual harassment. In the old version, no more than a one month jail sentence is stipulated for “anyone who initiates immoral acts, either spoken or with gestures.” In the new version, the words “sexual harassment,” are clearly stated to describe such acts, and those found to have committed them are to be punished by a one-year jail term, and fined LE500 ($87) to LE 5000 ($ 877).

The draft legislation also expands on what exactly is defined as harassment, which in the draft includes stalking, direct of indirect verbal abuse, direct or indirect sexual advances, phone calls, indecent SMS messages and cyber stalking.

“This is one of the most significant changes in the law,” says Hanan El Seidy, a member of parliament, who is working with the taskforce. “Current legislation does not identify all the types of sexual harassment, and those that are identified are not punished severely enough. That’s why we have been unable to excise this scourge from our society.” She added, however, “hopefully, with this new legislation, things will finally change.”

Now, the taskforce is lobbying members of the recently elected parliament to adopt the draft legislation and push for its implementation.

“It’s difficult though to predict how successful we will be,” says Botrous. “It might take time.”

Sexual harassment map:

Until then, women in Egypt now have at hand another tool that may help them cope. Four young women have launched the HarrasMap initiative, a web site featuring an interactive map that spotlights the “hotspots,” of sexual harassment in Egypt. Victims contributing to the map will have to identify the “kind” of abuse they were subject too, choosing from nine categories listed by the site, which include everything from “touching,” to “catcalls,” to “ogling,” “stalking,” “phone calls,” “indecent exposure,” “sexual soliciting,” and even “facial expressions.”

Each category is color coded, and will appear on the site’s interactive map spotlighting the areas identified by the victims.

“That way women can just go in, locate the area they need to go to on the map and zoom in to find the level, and kind of harassment,” says Enjy Ghozlan, one of the founders of the site.

Helping Ghozlan are Rebecca Chiao, Sawsan Gad and Amel Fahmy. The first three met while working with the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights Campaign Against Sexual Harassment. When it ended, these three women felt that much more needed to be done to tackle the problem.

“For a while, people simply stopped talking about it, as if the problem was no longer there, which is simply not true,” says Ghozlan.

In fact, according to a survey by the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights (ECWR), service workers, housewives and professionals alike all report experiencing sexual harassment. The most common form is inappropriate touching (40% of all respondents), followed by verbal harassment (38%). Additionally, for 30% of respondents harassment was a daily struggle. Only 12% of respondents approached police when harassed, expressing a complete lack of confidence in the legal system to protect them from harassers.

HarrasMap, says Ghozlan, will provide a haven for women to discuss the problem, safely and anonymously if they like.

“Women can report the incidents, share their experiences and simply vent,” says Ghozlan.

Through the site, victims will be able to report incidents to the site’s mobile number, or via Twitter, Facebook, or Email. The site will then respond to the victims by giving them referrals to legal and psychological services, which can help them cope.

Once an area is highlighted as a hotspot, the site’s volunteers will hit the streets with the map in hand to try and talk to the locals.

“We want people to be part of the solution,” explains Ghozlan. “We want shopkeepers and the area’s residents to start looking out for women and try and stop the abuse if it happens.”

The site will also feature an information guide on how to file a police report, and will upload videos of self-defense classes, so that women can defend themselves if they feel threatened. They also hope to start sending volunteers to schools to start talking to both young girls and boys about harassment.

Most importantly, says Ghozlan, the site wants to help bring back social responsibility to Egypt.

“People have become selfish, and they simply don’t care. In fact onlookers may even laugh at the abuse, or join in,” says Ghozlan. “I am not asking people to get into fights whenever they see sexual harassment happen, but at least they could stand up for the victimized woman.”

678 – the film

The site was launched at the same time as the movie, 678, in which Nelly Kareem and Bushra, two of Egypt’s biggest starts play the roles of women subjected to daily doses of sexual harassment. Members of the site have helped the stars of the movie raise awareness of the problem and have appeared side by side with them in panel discussions and TV programs. The fact that the voices complaining about harassment are becoming increasingly louder is not lost on Ghozlan.

“It’s embarrassing that in a country with a rich heritage like Egypt, a woman’s dignity is violated every time she steps an the street,” says Ghozlan. “We need to put a stop to this, we can’t continue to live in denial.”

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