Up in arms over sexual harassment

Dina Al-Mahdy, Tuesday 22 Sep 2020

Efforts to curb sexual harassment in Egypt have been gaining unprecedented momentum, encouraging more victims to speak out, writes Dina Al-Mahdy

illustration: Fathi

A mixture of bitterness and empowerment characterises Mona’s tone as she relates her experience of sexual harassment. 29-year-old Mona (not her real name) has been harassed twice, but she now feels empowered enough to speak out.

“I was harassed by my teacher when I was nine years old, and that was my first shock,” Mona said. “I reacted well despite my young age, and it didn’t affect me much later.”

But it was her second encounter with sexual harassment that left a deeper mark. “I was 14 years old, and, shockingly, the harasser this time was my new stepdad,” she said.

“My mum didn’t believe me when I told her, but luckily, I didn’t have to live with them for a long time as I moved to live with my grandmother. It took a lot of energy to move forward with my life. I went to therapy, talked about it, did my part in fixing myself, and that is still in process,” she said. “It was a trauma that no woman deserves to experience, no matter what. I’m proud I can now go public and speak about it.”

Mona is not alone in experiencing sexual harassment. The growing number of reported cases of sexual assault in Egypt has recently provoked an unprecedented wave of national efforts to curb violence against women. Indeed, the country seems to be witnessing an incredible social momentum to deal with the problem and a feminist revival in support of survivors of gender-based violence, including sexual harassment.

Sexual assaults have sometimes gone unpunished in Egypt, where women may suffer sexual harassment or abuse on a daily basis. For too long, the problem has been swept under the carpet, as victims may fear societal stigma, public shaming, or their families may be too worried about staining their reputation in an attempt to bring the culprits to justice. Access to justice has remained uneven for many women due to an inadequate penal code, weak harassment policies, and other reasons that have worked to silence women.

Sexual harassment is usually defined as unwanted physical contact, or remarks or attention that are inappropriate and offensive and result in fear or embarrassment. The problem is present in many countries, but in Egypt it has been spreading at an alarming rate.  

As far back as 2014, the government toughened up punishments for convicted sexual harassers, who now face up to six months in prison and up to LE50,000 in fines. Harassment on the streets of Cairo, however, remains a problem, with offenders sometimes as young as 10 or 11 years old and often operating as a pack.

But this year there has been a spike in reporting about cases of sexual assault since early July when an Instagram page revealed the case of an affluent Cairo student accused of sexually assaulting and blackmailing multiple women, a gang rape said to involve seven men from wealthy and powerful families, and protests from many human-rights activists. The painful stories of sexual assault or harassment being told by women have forced a national reckoning on the problem.

In recent weeks, scores of Egyptian women have been raising their voices, detailing on social media the sexual assaults they say they have endured. In some cases, the alleged abusers have been detained, and the government has drawn up strict measures to protect the victims’ identities.

A new bill has raised hopes that more women will come forward to expose abuses and to ensure the accountability of the perpetrators through legislative reforms and policy initiatives to uphold and safeguard the rights of survivors enshrined in the Egyptian constitution.

Challenges, however, have appeared on the way, as some women who have been reporting cases of harassment have been threatened by their attackers. Sometimes legal assistance has not been adequate, and many women may be reluctant to speak out in a still largely patriarchal society.

EXPLAINING THE PHENOMENON: There are no recent official statistics on crimes of sexual violence against women in Egypt because the victims of such violence often refrain from reporting it out of fear of retaliation or shame. However, according to the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), sexual harassment is a widespread and serious problem in Egypt.

A UN report on “Ways and Methods to Eliminate Sexual Harassment in Egypt” carried out by UN Women in 2013 revealed that over 99.3 per cent of the Egyptian girls and women surveyed reported experiencing some form of sexual harassment, either verbally or physically. 75.7 per cent of women who had been sexually harassed said it had occurred while they were wearing conservative clothing and no makeup.

According to the same study, 82.6 per cent of the female respondents did not feel safe or secure in the streets. The percentage increased to 86.5 per cent with regard to safety and security on public transport. Overwhelmingly, the study revealed that the enforcement of the law addressing sexual harassment was perceived as a first step in addressing the problem.

When asked about causes, the female respondents cited “foreign pornographic programmes” (97.2 per cent), “the non-enforcement of religious principles” (95.5 per cent), and the “non-compliance of girls with religious values with regard to appearance” (94.3 per cent). Male respondents cited women “wearing tight clothes” (96.3 per cent) and women who “do not conform to religious ethics with regard to their appearance” (97.5 per cent).

A 2017 survey by two groups, UN Women and Promundo, a Brazil-based NGO promoting non-violent and equitable masculinities, reported that nearly two-thirds of men in Egypt said they had sexually harassed women or girls on the streets. More than three-quarters of the men said that a woman’s “provocative” dress was “a legitimate reason for harassment”, the survey said.

The reasons aiming to explain why sexual harassment occurs, whether triggered or encouraged by social, financial, cultural, religious or psychological difficulties that men face, have one thing in common: power. Men try to enforce power over women because the latter are largely powerless in a male-dominated society, one in which men are expected to have power over them.

In a psychological attempt to feel powerful, men may harass women because women may be perceived as weaker beings. Seen in this light, harassment is a way for men to feel better about themselves.  

Harassers often also go unpunished, and many female victims fret about reporting such incidents for fear of social stigma. Victim blaming is one reason why many harassed girls may feel reluctant to report such incidents. It is almost a common narrative in Egypt that women are blamed for wearing what is seen as “permissive: or “provocative” clothing and/or following lifestyles that many mention as one reason motivating sexual harassment.

In worst-case scenarios, women can be attacked or even killed for standing up to their harassers. In 2012 and 2013, Iman Mustafa from Assiut and Shorouk Al-Torabi from Gharbiya were killed as a result of resisting the sexual harassment they had experienced. Mustafa was shot by her harasser, and Al-Torabi was run over by her harasser’s car before he escaped.

“In Egyptian society, there is a huge stigma that follows the survivors of sexual assault,” said a 20-year-old student and the victim of a sexual assault who spoke on condition of anonymity. “We are pushed to be silent and keep what happened to ourselves, which brings continuous trauma.”

METOO: Launched in 2016 by US sexual-harassment survivor and activist Tarana Burke, the MeToo movement aims to empower women through empathy and solidarity and by visibly demonstrating how many women have survived sexual assault and harassment.

Similar to other social-justice and empowerment movements based upon breaking silence, people have publicised allegations of sex crimes committed by powerful and/or prominent men using the hashtag on social media.

Egypt has seen a strong feminist resurgence after dozens of Egyptian women began to speak more openly on social media about sexual abuse and assault, although in some cases this can result in their being disbelieved, blamed, or even suffer further abuse.

Since its inception, the movement in Egypt, viewed by many Egyptians as their MeToo campaign, has received the support of key government institutions including Egypt’s cabinet, parliament, prosecution and National Council for Women (NCW), the latter also offering legal and social protection.

Perhaps the most significant sign of change to come out of this campaign has been the courage shown by a growing number of victims in going public with their stories and seeking retribution after months or years of bottling up deeply scarring experiences. Another significant sign is that the state and religious authorities have started to take a firmer stand.

 “We’re taking back our lives by speaking out and by exposing these people,” a victim noted. “It was really inspiring for me to finally speak out about it because I know now that I’m not alone. Now I know that people are going to support me, and that it’s not my fault. No matter what I think and no matter what happens, it’s not my fault. He never had the right to do this to me. We’re showing everyone now that we have a voice,” she said. “But I don’t know if I can call it a step forward until justice is served.”

Notable in the MeToo movement has been the use of social-media networks to publicise testimonies about sexual assaults, call for the arrest of suspected perpetrators, and publish the names and photographs of the alleged culprits.

The latest outpouring of anger is Assault Police, an Instagram initiative aimed at combatting harassment. Young Egyptian women posting testimonials of sexual misconduct on social media have triggered a national outcry, which led to the arrest of Ahmed Bassem Zaki, an affluent 22-year-old Egyptian and former student of the American University in Cairo (AUC).

In a five-page statement, the prosecution said the man had admitted to harassing at least six young women online, including one aged under 18 on different social-media platforms and blackmailing the victims.  

“Dozens of young girls have come forward with assault claims since the beginning of the post on Instagram. As you know, women in Egypt often do not have the privilege of being heard. But now we have seen that begin to happen. People want to see change. We want to see men who hurt women held accountable for words and actions used to degrade women. We are more than half the nation of Egypt. More than half of the country is asking to be heard,” said Sabah Khodeir, a 29-year-old activist for women’s rights, who launched the online campaign in cooperation with Assault Police.

The case triggered a MeToo wave in Egypt with the NCW saying it had received 400 complaints, mainly about violence against women, within days of the case being made public, and hundreds of women started to share stories online.

The NCW urged any women who had faced such attacks to come forward and to report the incident through official mechanisms. It condemned any retaliatory threats made against women exposing sexual misconduct, stating that it stood by every woman exposed to threats by providing all the necessary support.

One of the stories that the Instagram account revealed was a gang-rape allegation at a luxury hotel in Cairo, which triggered a new MeToo wave. The alleged assault took place following a party at the five-star Fairmont Nile City Hotel in August 2014, where a group of seven men are suspected of drugging and raping a young woman, according to several social-media accounts.

Names and pictures of the figures accused, who hail from elite families, have circulated online. The victim, who corroborated details online, was unwilling to comment publicly for fear of a backlash.  

An official investigation was launched under the hashtag #FairmontIncident. According to official statements, three Egyptian men have been arrested by authorities in Lebanon, and two others by authorities in Egypt. At least two men accused of being involved in the gang rape remain fugitives and are believed to be outside Egypt. The authorities are working with Interpol to locate these men and ensure their swift return to Egypt.

On 31 August, the prosecution ordered the detention of three people pending investigations and ordered the release of three people on LE100,000 bail and the release of another person pending investigations into “incidents they have been accused of during the current investigations into the rape of a girl at the Fairmont Nile City Hotel.”

Unofficial reports claim that the witnesses involved have been detained by the authorities and are also being investigated. Some articles circulated on social media corroborating the claims say that those arrested include the victim of the 2014 rape and have attempted to discredit the rape allegations.

But sources speaking to Al-Ahram Weekly on condition of anonymity denied claims that any rape victim, including the one in the Fairmont case, had been detained. The authorities are keeping a lid on investigations, but activists fear that this may discourage future victims from reporting similar incidents.

OFFICIAL EFFORTS: Following the latest wave of online testimonies, more efforts have been made on advancing women’s rights and protection against sexual assault.

A new amendment to Article 306 of the Criminal Code was presented by the Ministry of Justice to the cabinet granting the automatic right of anonymity to victims of harassment, rape, and assault during court cases. The bill was passed by parliament on 17 August.

The amendment has encouraged more women, who may have refrained from reporting such crimes in fear of doing harm to their safety and reputation, to come forward and press charges against attackers through legislation, offering victims the right of anonymity throughout the legal proceedings in order to protect them from possible retribution.

The amendment was praised by activists and the NCW as a historic gesture of commitment in protecting the rights of women in Egypt.

“There is a political will to protect women’s rights and attempt to reduce as much as possible violence against women,” said lawmaker Magda Nasr. “The new law will be a game-changer for women in Egypt, as it will give them greater protection to report such cases.”

Al-Azhar, the Sunni Muslim world’s most prestigious religious authority, also stepped in with a landmark statement in support of women seeking legal retribution against offenders, lambasting harassment as “forbidden and deviant”. Al-Azhar also took a firm stance against social misconceptions that may blame women’s attire as a catalyst for sexual harassment, saying that this was a “delusional excuse” entertained by “sick people”.

It further encouraged women to report such crimes and denounced the targeting of women for wearing clothing that might be considered suggestive. Likewise, the Dar Al-Iftaa, in charge of issuing religious edicts (fatwas), slammed those who blame women for wearing provocative clothing.

Official and non-official efforts to curb sexual harassment seem to be receiving global praise. UN Women has applauded Egypt’s anti-harassment efforts, saying that the country “is witnessing incredible social momentum in support of survivors of gender-based violence, including sexual assault and harassment.”

“Eliminating all forms of violence against women requires not only robust legislation and nationally led and accessible support services, but also requires communities, families, peers, employers… all of us… to support the voice of survivors and to end the stigma associated with coming forward,” said Christine Arab, the UN Women country representative.

The two main legislative instruments protecting women from sexual violence are the Egyptian constitution of 2014 and the Criminal Code of 1937 (and amendments). The constitution not only preserves the rights granted to women by previous constitutions, but also introduces more articles aimed at protecting women from other forms of violence and discrimination.

Since the abolition of the criminal law provision allowing rapists to marry their victims in 1999, the provisions of the Criminal Code criminalising sexual offences against women have been modified to enhance existing punishments and introduce new ones.

In 2011, the presidential decree promulgating Law 11 of 2011 enhanced the penalties under the Criminal Code for multiple offences against women, including sexual assault, rape, kidnapping, and public sexual harassment, to “aggravated imprisonment” (imprisonment with hard labour) of not less than twenty years or even life.

The latest modification occurred in June 2014, when interim president Adli Mansour approved presidential decree 50 of 2014, which modified articles 306 (a) and 306 (b) of the Criminal Code by creating enhanced penalties for sexual harassment, whether by physical gestures or material transmitted by modern means of communication, making these punishable by imprisonment for not less than six months or a fine of up to LE50,000.  

But laws alone will never be enough in the absence of social awareness, and efforts on both governmental and non-governmental levels have been carried out in that domain.

 “Every woman is powerful, but society and the mindset around her may take away part of her power,” said Maya Morsi in a discussion called “Zero Tolerance: Ending Sexual Harassment, From Awareness to Policy” hosted by the AUC to promote awareness on sexual harassment.

One main issue is that many women and girls may remain largely unaware of their rights. They thus fear to speak up despite the fact that “Egypt already has a legislative umbrella for protecting women,” she said.

In order to represent these women and encourage them to speak up, groups such as the Assault Police, Stop Sexual Harassment in Egypt, Banat Masr Khat Ahmar (Egypt’s Women are a Red Line), Welad Al-Balad (Sons of the Country), Estargel (Behave like a Man), the One Hand Initiative, and many others, have aimed to raise awareness.

A few have been initiated not only to encourage women to speak up, but also to post any images or videos of their harassers, in order to make women feel powerful, protected, and secure. With this in mind, an online initiative and application known as Harassmap was launched to fight sexual harassment in Cairo by locating where incidents took place and trying to track the perpetrators.

Another way to raise awareness is through social media, art and cinema. Following the first jail sentence in Egypt for sexual harassment in 2008, two films, Scheherazade, Tell Me a Story (directed by Yousri Nasrallah in 2009) and 678 (directed by Mohamed Diab in 2010), have brought the issue of sexual assault to cinemas, showing how the victims of harassment can access justice by speaking up.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 September, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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