Three teenage girls let out chilling screams as they are chased down the street by a horde of young men in a video that was posted on Facebook on August 24. This latest video of street harassment in Egypt provoked a wave of outrage on social media.
This video, which is just over a minute long, was posted on the Facebook page of a resident of Damanhour, a town in the Bohaïra governorate in northern Egypt.
It shows a group of young men, some of whom are riding mopeds, chasing three teenage girls down the street. The girls scream for help. At one point (around 00’36’’), the young men try to trap the girls against a wall. When the girls try to escape, some of the young men catch them and try to put them on their mopeds.
Just a few hours after the video was posted on Facebook, the original post disappeared from the wall of the person who first shared it. A few days later, on August 28, this person wrote a post explaining that their account had been hacked.
The original video’s disappearance didn’t stop copies of it from being shared widely online. Online, many people, especially on Twitter, criticised the behaviour of the young men in the video.
Translation: "This video is a real scandal (...) The director of safety [of the governorate of Bohaïra] should resign immediately."
Translation: "I don’t understand why people think filming this kind of assault was enough when they could have intervened.”
Translation: "I didn’t even dare to look at the footage of the three young girls being harassed. I was afraid of feeling even worse. Especially as I feel like I can’t do anything to change things.”
Since the beginning of August, three videos of harassment have been widely shared online. Aside from the three teenagers assaulted in Damanhour, another video shows a man harassing a young woman by asking her repeatedly to get coffee with him. Another shows the murder of a vacationer who according to Egyptian media tried to protect his wife from harrassment on a beach in Alexandria.
In reaction to a reported increase in harassment in the past few weeks, Cairo’s Al-Azhar Mosque, one of the highest authorities in Sunni Islam, released a statement denouncing harassment on Twitter.
Translation: "Harassment is forbidden by sharia law. This behaviour is absolutely reprehensible and unjustifiable.”
Feminist activists face repression
People first started talking openly about sexual harassment in Egypt after the revolt in January 2011, which led to the fall of President Hosni Mubarak. Groups of people formed committees to protect women from hostile crowds during protests or Eid festivities.
Many of these groups are no longer active. Since Abdel Fattah al-Sissi came to power in June 2014, NGOs working for women’s rights have lost prominence. Al-Sissi’s government has been carrying out a repression of feminist activists, who are often accused of receiving foreign funds to cause trouble in the country.
In December 2016, activist Azza Soliman, the founder of the Centre for Egyptian Women Legal Assistance (CEWLA), was arrested and questioned by police about foreign financing. Her assets were frozen and she is currently banned from leaving the country.
"The government wants to be the only protector of women”
During the same period, another activist, Mozn Hassan, who runs the NGO Nazra, was also arrested and imprisoned. Released on bail on June 20, she’s accused of having received foreign funds and thus “compromising the country’s security”.
Hassan told France 24 that the government has launched initiatives to end street harassment in the past few years, but that it isn’t enough.
In April 2014, they voted in a law that would criminialise sexual harassment and would require those convicted of harassment to serve time behind bars. In July of the same year, the interior minister also launched police units tasked with fighting street harassment.
However, this isn’t enough. These special police units only operate in the capital.
Moreover, some victims of harassment are also harassed by those who should be protecting them. Fairly often, women who have been harassed tell me that they are harassed by the police when they go to the station to file a complaint.
The other issue is that the person accused of harassment is able to look at the complaint filed by the victim, which includes the victim’s personal information (including their phone number and address.) The law doesn’t protect the victim’s personal data, thus putting her at risk if the person that she has accused of harassment wants revenge.
Another reason that the fight against sexual harassment has not advanced of late is because of the paternalistic attitude of the government, which wants to be the only protector of women. But, in a country of 100 million residents, they can’t do everything!
So the government needs to let civil society do its work, especially around education and campaigns to raise awareness about this issue.”
Egyptian authorities have also been known to crack down on people who dare to criticise their fight against sexual harassment. On May 11, an Egyptian human rights activist, Amal Fathy, was arrested after having alleged that the government “doesn’t protect women” in a video shared on Facebook. Fathy is still in prison and is being accused of “the propagation of false information and rumours to upset national security”.
On July 7, a Lebanese tourist was sentenced to eight years in prison for “infringing on the rights of the Egyptian people” after she shared a video in which she said she was a victim of sexual harassment.