Tahrir Square, Cairo has gained recognition for being a global hub of political freedom. Yet, it has also become a haven for sexual harassment against Egyptian women.
The latest video from Tahrir Square showing a woman being brutally stripped naked and assaulted, went viral on social media, provoking a huge public outcry. Since then, a new law, defining sexual harassment, was approved for the first time in Egypt’s history. The UN said that the new law is very progressive as more than 99% of Egyptian women have experienced some form of sexual harassment, ranging from verbal harassment to rape. Egyptian rights groups reported that such figures were tied with the dramatically increased number of assaults post-revolution.
According to the law, whoever commits a sexual assault would face imprisonment for at least one year, and a minimum fine of 3,000 Egyptian pounds (£248). There have been many grassroots initiative to counter harassment, with social media being a useful tool for many women to speak up and help tackle this sensitive topic within Egyptian society.
‘Harassmap’ is an independent initiative with the aim of ending the social acceptance of sexual harassment in Egypt. It uses crowdsourcing data linked to an interactive online map that is used to track and prevent rampant assault, allowing women to report instances of abuse by using the hashtag #harassmap.
“Aside from the map, ‘Harassmap’ uses its online outlets to raise awareness and challenge the stereotypes about sexual harassment. It also informs our followers and volunteers about plans of protests,” says Engy Ghozlan, co-founder of Harassmap.
“Our Facebook page, for instance, posts about services such as tips for victims on how to report harassment, legal services and advice, psychological support, and how to react to different forms of harassment,” Ghozlan adds.
Apparently, social media is a quick and free way to disseminate information and raise awareness about sexual harassment. Furthermore, such initiatives’ online outlets are used as alternative media, and to generate content for traditional media.
Maria Michael, a volunteer in ‘I Won’t Shut Up on Harassment’ initiative elaborates:
“We can’t rely on traditional media in transmitting the pure truth, as most of them are owned by the state, and they often twist the truth according to their political reference. If they want to say that there is no harassment at all in Egypt, they will,” Michael comments.
Moreover, Ghozlan pointed out the effective use of their online platforms to build a network of solidarity that engages women around the world.
“We tend to post sexual harassment-related news and stories from other countries that draw parallels with Egypt or provide some learning,” says Ghozlan.
After the shocking video, a mass protest against sexual violence was organised via Facebook. Thousands of demonstrators, both men and women, gathered for the campaign “Walk like an Egyptian woman”. Besides, the sense of helplessness has given rise to unusual hashtag campaign called “we will sexually harass men”, aiming to make men feel victimized as women and condemning a culture of tolerance that abets sexual harassment. Another hashtag trending in Egypt was discussing reasons for the spread of harassment. It was used more than 7000 times on Twitter, according to the BBC trending. But most of them were giving excuses not explanations.
“Bussy” or “Look” is a project intended to tell women’s stories to the public and publish them. Accordingly, its followers express solidarity and acknowledge the braveness of these women.
“Social media is a very effective tool at the moment, if not our only tool amidst the new protest law and countless arrests,” said Sondos Shabayek, director of the Bussy online initiative.
Although activists and non-governmental organisations utilise the new space for dialogue created to disseminate information about such matters, sexual harassment continues to take its toll on Egypt’s women.
Michael believes that in order to be a successful initiative, you have to reach your target audience both online and offline.
“We must tie what is going on in the virtual world to what is happening on the ground. It’s not enough to post your refusal on Facebook; we have to tie this with volunteering to educate people or to help victims on ground. We have to talk to people who don’t have a Facebook account,” says Michael.
The sexual assault video dominated the traditional media more than usual. One newspaper, Al Watan, used its front-page to demand the government to “Execute them”, referring to rapists. However, activists see that media’s approach still frames sexual attacks as a one-off, and consider harassment as the fault of the victim rather than a social epidemic.
“It’s not about how much the media says about these matters, but about the way the media says them,” Mozn Hassan, the director of rights group Nazra for feminist studies, told the Guardian.
Further uproar was caused by comments by Maha Bahnassy, a TV anchor-woman, during a live report while covering the Tahrir celebrations. When the correspondent for al-Nahar TV told the anchor-woman about many cases of sexual harassment, she laughed and said it's "because they are happy, the people are having fun”. Bahnassy denied later that her comment was in response to the harassment incidents.
“What the anchor-woman and many others said have led to a mentality that doesn’t respect women. It is not easy to confront such a problem when there are lapses like such examples,” says Ahmed Mokhtar, a journalist in Al Dostour Newspaper.
Moreover, several media outlets also further harmed the victims. They published the video revealing the identity of the harassed women. “Which is unacceptable, as the victim has the right to protect her privacy,” Michael comments.
Another case in March went viral on social media when a female student at Cairo University was sexually harassed by male students. A well-known TV presenter, Tamer Amin, said that it’s the victim’s fault, as she was “dressed like a belly dancer”.
Gaber Nassar, the university president, adopted the same attitude. He spoke to a private channel ONTV, implying that the victim provoked the attack by wearing an “unconventional outfit”.
Amid uproars on social media, both Nassar and Amin apologized for their comments.
“Mob sexual harassment incidents are happening on university campuses, yet ‘academics’ blame the victim. ‘What made her go there?’ is often the first question asked when women are being harassed in public spaces. There’s still a long way to go,” women’s rights activist Mariam Kirollos wrote on Twitter. “For the sake of women and the sake of this country, this violence cannot continue,” says Engy Ghozlan, co-founder of Harassmap.