Sexual harassment has plagued Egypt for years, and it’s getting worse. Today, more than 80% of Egyptian women say they’ve been victimized. Faced with the government’s inertia, a group of men has decided to take to the streets to stop perpetrators.
A study carried out in 2010 by the Cairo-based Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights revealed that 83% of Egyptian women and 98% of foreign women have been victims of obscene comments or inappropriate touching in public places. Only 12% of them dare involve the authorities or file a complaint. Furthermore, more than 60% of the men interviewed admitted to having sexually harassed a woman.
Victims often feel socially pressured to remain silent. Recently, however, foreign female journalists, such as Sonia Dridi of FRANCE 24 and Lara Logan of CBS, have had the courage to describe the sexual aggression that they suffered while reporting from Cairo’s Tahrir Square.
There has also been a significant rise in Egyptian women sharing their stories of harassment via the Internet, but the authorities have still not taken any measures to deal with the problem, which has created a climate of impunity. So much so that last June, a group of men sexually assaulted several protesters during a protest denouncing sexual harassment.
The revolution has not done much for women’s rights in Egypt, but it has allowed for the creation of more civil society organisations, including some, like the Basma movement (“imprint” in Arabic), that have been fighting against sexual harassment.
“Recently, out of five interventions, only two of the victims agreed to file a complaint”
Abd al-Fattah Mahmoud is a member of the Basma movement, which was created in June 2012.
Our movement is made up of volunteers, which means they are not available to provide their services all of the time. So we try to target specific, high-risk zones.Volunteers patrolling a commercial street near Talâât Harb square.Sexual assaults occur at a higher frequency during holidays because there are more women in the streets. About sixty of our volunteers worked a three-day shift during the Aïd al-Adha holiday [October 26 – 28] around Cairo’s Talaât Harb Square and its surrounding streets. It is a very lively neighborhood, with many clothing stores, restaurants, and movie theatres.“We caught this boy as he was using his mobile phone to film specific body parts of a girl walking in the street. We brought him to the police, and it all went down fairly quietly.”“Passersby asked this victim not to file a complaint against her aggressor. Luckily, she did not yield to their demands.”
In three days, we managed to catch five aggressors in the act, and we brought them to the police. Of the five victims, only two accepted to file a complaint.However, our actions are largely focused on prevention. When we patrol the streets, we try to make our presence felt in order to dissuade inappropriate behavior toward women. We always wear orange and yellow jackets [Editor’s note: for the team leaders], and we introduce ourselves to the local merchants in order to explain what we’re doing and encourage them to work with us.“There isn’t a standard profile for sexual aggressors, but in Cairo, they are typically unemployed young men that loiter in groups”When we notice men following a young woman or talking to her in a suspicious manner, we grab them by the shoulder and lead them away. We never use violence against them except in self-defense, because we believe doing so could lead them to try to get revenge. Rather, we try to create a dialogue and to make them feel guilty about how they are acting.There isn’t a standard profile for sexual aggressors, but in Cairo’s streets, they are typically unemployed young men that loiter in groups. Some of them are as young as ten.
“This feeling of impunity has developed due to a lack of solidarity”
Hannah Kamal is a television writer and producer in Cairo.
Sexual harassment has grown alarmingly in the last few years. There are several potential causes. In my opinion, the main cause is economic. Marriage, which costs on average no less than 10,000 dollars, has become an impossible dream for many unemployed young men. Some have sadly not found any other way to deal with their frustration than to attack girls and women in the streets.In my opinion, the second reason has to do with the disappearance of good manners in Egypt. Twenty years ago, when a woman was the victim of sexual harassment in the street, other men would defend her, as if she were a sister or a daughter. Nowadays, people have far less solidarity, and most of the time do not intervene. This is why attackers have this sense of impunity.“These patrols are not enough; the government must tackle this problem head on”I also believe that women have some measure of responsibility in what is happening because, when they are victims of sexual harassment, they do not dare report this to the authorities. They feel ashamed. They must be urged to be courageous and file complaints, because it is the attacker who should be ashamed, not them.These volunteer patrols are of course a very good thing. But it’s not enough because there are far too few of them and they are lacking in resources. The government must tackle this problem head on and provide the means with which to fight this problem effectively. Despite the seriousness of the situation, the authorities haven’t even created an emergency phone line for victims.I have not personally been a victim of sexual harassment. It may be due to the fact that I wear a headscarf. But nothing in the world can justify harassing a woman, no matter how she is dressed.
All photos were taken between October 26 and 28. They were published on the Basma movement’s Facebook page.