The American University in Cairo (AUC) launched last Thursday the AUC SpeakUp Dialogue Series in Ewart Hall, Tahrir Square Campus, as part of its AUC SpeakUp initiative.
The series is held in partnership with several institutions and prominent influencers to participate in the national conversation on sexual harassment and raise awareness of this critical issue.
The series, which opened with the question: “How can we combat harassment and why should we care?” features a set of conversations around key topics ranging from social norms and portrayals of gender in film, to safety of public spaces, workplaces, and college campuses.
AUC President Francis Ricciardone launches the AUC SpeakUp Dialog Series Photo courtesy of AUC (1)
The AUC formed an advisory board of distinguished leaders to help shape the topics, speakers, sequence, and direction of the series. The board members are Maya Morsy, president of Egypt’s National Council for Women (NCW); Hisham El-Khazindar, co-founder and managing director of Qalaa Holdings and AUC trustee; Christine Arab, UN Women country representative for Egypt; Hoda El-Sadda, professor of English and comparative literature at Cairo University; Rabab El-Mahdi, associate professor and chair of AUC’s Department of Political Science; Nadeen Ashraf, AUC student and founder of Assault Police; and Omar Samra, adventurer, entrepreneur and motivational speaker.
The first of the series was moderated by Farah Shash, community psychologist and co-founder of the Community Hub.
(L-r) El-khazindar, Ashraf and Al Mahdi at the AUC Ewart Hall, Tahrir Campus Photo courtesy of AUC
In his welcome speech, AUC President Francis Ricciardone emphasised that the role of leading higher education institutions such as the AUC is paramount in raising awareness and addressing the great problems of our time. “At AUC, we started the SpeakUp initiative this summer, which has caused structural changes at our university,” he said. “AUC has a zero-tolerance policy for sexual harassment, and we have an online reporting system that enables any person who experienced harassment or discrimination to report a complaint.”
Ricciardone explained that AUC’s latest measures to combat sexual harassment included the changing of the Title IX Office to the Office of Institutional Equity, to report directly to the Office of the President, and to receive complaints from all members of the AUC community. “It is also now mandatory that every community member receives an online training designed to raise awareness of sexual harassment.”
Morsy addressed the need to continue combating sexual harassment, spreading awareness, encouraging women and girls to report, and remembering that the constitution and Egyptian law protects women’s rights. “We are working hard to raise awareness in schools, universities, and nurseries, in cooperation with civil society. We have 22 units to combat violence against women in universities, and we thank AUC for having a similar unit,” she said, adding that the NCW is also fully prepared to create an environment to where all Egyptian universities can cooperate.
As one of the founders of the Anti-Harassment Unit at Cairo University in 2014, El-Sadda said, “One of the most important reasons behind this unit’s success was its organic establishment by academics in cooperation with civil society groups and students. Such a foundation made it an exemplary unit in Egyptian universities.”
“The Dialogue Series is an occasion to educate the AUC community and the general public about the various issues and challenges linked to sexual harassment: the magnitude of the problem, the social, cultural, as well as legal constraints that deter women from reporting incidents of sexual harassment in the workplace and in public spaces, the stigma surrounding sexual harassment and how to address it, and sharing and comparing institutional experiences and policies on dealing with sexual harassment,” El-Sadda added.
Ashraf, who launched the Assault Police Instagram account that reinvigorated Egypt’s #MeToo movement explained how she found that social media was an efficient tool in fighting sexual harassment. “I noticed with the first story I shared that the survivors of harassment realised that they have similar experiences and that they were not the problem, but the real problem was the harassers and society.” Ashraf explained that she never imagined that others would react, nor did she imagine that there would be such a response from the National Council for Women and the police, and that the harassers could be punished.
El-Mahdi stressed the need for integration between the state and civil society in addressing a societal issue such as harassment. “We have had important initiatives since 2005, and the accumulation of these initiatives is an important factor in combating harassment.” Al-Mahdi stressed the importance of such integration without incriminating the victim at the societal or institutional level.
“We are at a critical stage that requires us to be part of this initiative and to be responsible, as silence is almost a crime, in my personal opinion. The development of any country lies in how it deals with women’s issues, and we must all join hands to ensure zero-tolerance for harassment,” Samra explained.
El-Khazindar argued that we must look at the developmental aspect of combating harassment and violence against women. He explained that universities, including the AUC, have an essential educational role in creating the appropriate climate to set the rules and deter harassers, stressing the private sector’s role in setting a good example for institutions.
On the other hand, Arab said that laws are fine and incredibly essential to combat and fight sexual harassment, but a behavioural shift is required. “Laws need to be enforced, that means institutions like AUC have to enforce these with rigour, impartiality, and penalty, there has to be justice, that’s when the behaviour starts to change.”
Over the next seven months, the Dialogue Series will address several issues related to sexual harassment, including “How are we socialised around gender norms?”, “Portrayals of gender in media and film”, “How do we make public spaces safe for women?”, “Are we safe in cyberspace?”, “Combating harassment on university campuses”, “Safe, inclusive and diverse workspaces”, and “Legal framework and violence against women.”