Fighting the good fight against sexual harassment: New, effective initiatives

Dina Samir , Saturday 8 Sep 2012

With sexual harassment plaguing Egyptian society to the point that it can no longer be denied, the new initiatives are much more promising than before

Fighting the good fight against sexual harassment
Banat Masr Khat A7mar raising awareness in Cairo

"If women continue to silently put up with the daily sexual harassment in the Egyptian streets, the society will witness new crimes as a result of the mounting oppression women feel when they get harassed," said Noha Roshdy four years ago when she filed the first sexual harassment case in Egypt that led to the harasser being imprisoned.

Roshdy’s story received great media and public attention in 2008, however, few women followed Roshdy’s example. Egyptian society continued to stay hushed about the problem, which caused it to explode like a final stage cancer.

"Silence is no longer a choice" is what drove youth across Egypt to organise and seek practical, effective ways to actually fight sexual harassment.

The number of the different initiatives that work on combating this phenomena has significantly increased after Egypt's January 25 Revolution. "The revolution has inspired us to be positive and gave us hope that change is possible," Dina Farid, the founder of Banat Masr Khat A7mar movement, said, explaining that her personal participation in the revolution taught her how to build a movement. 

Banat Masr Khat A7mar (Egypt's Women are a Red Line, e.g. a line in the sand) was launched this year to raise awareness on the problem through communicating with people in the streets. "We neither argue with the harassers nor lecture them. We simply talk with them in their own language," Farid said. During the Eid Al-Fitr holiday that wraps up the holy fasting month of Ramadan, the movement focused on downtown and the Nile Corniche area.

The dream of Welad El Balad (The Country's Son) an Alexandria-based initiative founded by Karim Mahrous in 2011 is to clean Alexandria of sexual harassment. To reach this dream, Welad El Balad also organised street-level awareness campaigns. Before engaging with people, the initiative’s volunteers first get trained. They learn of the legal aspects, including the constitution's articles that affect sexual harassment and they also focus on the psychological aspect of the problem, including the different kinds of harassers and how to address them.

"We explain to women that the law is on their side and that they should not tolerate sexual harassment. We also educate men on the serious consequences of this act," Zeinab Ayoub, Welad El Balad campaign coordinator, noted.

Although there is nothing in the Egyptian constitution that directly addresses sexual harassment or defines it, there are three articles in the criminal law that can be applied in the case of harassment. The first is "insulting" (article 306), which can be applied to cat-calling and other verbal harassments on the street. The punishment can range from a fine of 100 LE (roughly $17) to one month in prison. The second is "indecent behavior," (article 278) which applies to cases of indecent exposure, trailing and stalking and punishment ranges from a fine to three years in prison.

The third is "sexual assault" (article 268) which covers cases of touching and other physical harassment with punishment ranging from three to 15 years in prison.

Estargel (Behave Like a Man) was launched two months ago to stop the rising problem of men riding in the women-only carriage in the Cairo underground metro is also working on fighting sexual harassment, says founder, Sherine Badr. Estargel launched door-knocking campaigns in downtown Cairo to stir discussion on sexual harassment. "The fact that society has started to realise the problem and talk about is in itself a good milestone," Badr explained.

The different initiatives are challenged by many cultural misconceptions and wrong beliefs that exists in Egyptian society on the issue of sexual harassment.

"One of the most popular delusion among men in Egypt, which we hear a lot is that ‘respectable’ women do not get harassed," Farid noted, explaining there is still unawareness of how massive the problem is.

"Women get harassed because they are wearing ‘provocative clothes' is another common excuse harassers give and many people tend to believe," Ayoub said. "Not only is this unjust against women who have the right to walk down streets without getting harassed, regardless of what they wear, but it also implies that men are helpless people who cannot control their sexual desires, which is very insulting to men," Farid added.

To counter those arguments, volunteers utilise different approaches depending on the type of harasser they are speaking to. "For some the religious approach can be effective, while with others stressing on Egyptian values, such as nobility (shahama), could be the key," Alaa Darwish, another campaign coordinator of Welad El Balad, explained.

The other cultural barrier that adds insult to injury to women is their embarrassment and fear of reporting when they've been sexually harassed. A woman told Welad El Balad that she would not dare to report sexual harassment because her parents could think that it would be a disgrace to the family, Ayoub explained. The 2008 Egyptian Centre for Women's Rights report on sexual harassment in Egypt revealed that only 2.4 per cent of women experiencing sexual harassment reported the crime; and 96.7 per cent of Egyptian women did not seek police assistance.

Another major obstacle, Farid pointed out, is that sexual harassment has become a trend deeply entrenched in the Egyptian culture. For some harassers, especially the young men under 18, sexual harassment is just a fashion. They harass girls to brag about it and to prove they are now a grownup.

Badr also highlighted the negative role the Egyptian media and cinema have played in rooting wrong values among young people. "Media have portrayed men harassing women as ‘cool’ and that women like to be harassed."

In spite of the many challenges, the different initiatives have gained significant ground.

The road to overcoming the problem of sexual harassment is long and bumpy, yet, the different initiatives are armed with strategies and hope.

Welad El Balad have partnered with certain neighbourhoods in Alexandria, where they have shops there hanging their posters and cooperating with them to stop harassment and make their areas "safe" territories. Also Banat Masr Khat A7mar have managed to secure the support of street venders in some areas in Cairo who help them fight the problem.

The movement now includes former harassers who quit harassment and joined their cause. With the underground metro part of their initiative, Estargel have pressured metro officials, who have responded to their complaints by launching a new hotline for women to report violations happening in the women-only carriage. 

Banat Masr Khat A7mar are working on developing different awareness ads to be aired on Egyptian TV that will target the different segments of the society with the right messages.

Also, they plan to work with popular-class (shaabi) music. "We want to infuse positive messages in this music genre that people listen to in the microbus and tok tok."

Estargel campaign are also keen on enforcing positive values through doing sketches that would tackle the issue in a comic, light way.

Welad El balad plan to launch school awareness campaigns where they talk to kids at young age about the problem of sexual harassment.

"I am optimistic that our efforts would make a change. At least now the problem of sexual harassment is unveiled, which is the first step to solving it; and we are not going to give up on the fight," Badr concluded.

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