High-tech answer to harassment on Egypt's streets

Planned website to use text and Twitter messages to create map of hotspots of female harassment on Cairo streets

October 25, 2010 15:00
3 minute read.
Females face sexual harassment in Cairo daily

311_sexual harrasment on the Nile. (photo credit: Associated Press)


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CAIRO — It's a problem nearly every woman in the Egyptian capital has experienced — leering, whistles, groping or other sexual harassment on Cairo's thoroughfares and backalleys. Soon they'll be able to instantly speak out on the Internet when it happens.

A planned website, Harrasmap, will allow women to quickly report instances of harassment via text message or Twitter, to be loaded onto a digital map of Cairo to show hotspots and areas that might be dangerous for women to walk alone. The data will be shared with activists, media, and police.

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"The whole idea is to have user-generated information," said Engy Ghozlan, one of the volunteer activists organizing the program, which is set to launch in the coming months. Simply feeling that she is not alone, Ghozlan said, can help a woman who is feeling powerless. "It's actually encouraging to know that," she said.

The map could also give a graphic depiction of the extent of a problem that women say is pervasive in Egypt, but which authorities are only starting to acknowledge. A 2008 survey by the Egyptian Center for Women's Rights found that 83 percent of Egyptian women and 98 percent of foreign women living in Cairo said they had been harassed in some way — and 62 percent of men admitted to harrassing.

But until recently, the issue was rarely dealt with publicly. Only after Web videos of women being molested in the street by crowds of young men during a holiday four years ago did media begin discussing the problem. Since then, a bill outlining criminal punishment for sexual harassment has gone to parliament, though it has yet to vote on it.

And some in power seem unconvinced the phenomenon is widespread. First Lady Suzanne Mubarak, who often touts herself as an advocate for women's issues, dismissed it as a media exaggeration, saying in 2008, "Maybe a few scatterbrained youths are behind this crime."

There are numerous theories as to why harassment is so common in Cairo. Some attribute it to a growing Muslim conservatism spreading the idea that women should stay out of the public sphere. Others cite widespread unemployment among the youth, leaving them bored, frustrated and unable to marry. Many Egyptians see a broader breakdown of courtesy and morals, a malaise from Egypt's poor economy and political stagnation.

Organizers of Harassmap say the problem is not being overblown, effecting women whether or not they wear the conservative Muslim headscarf and reaching the point were women avoid the streets.

"It's become part of their everyday life that they have to endure," said Ghozlan.

They hope the modern platform of Harassmap will make it easier for women to speak out.

The site, which will be anonymous, is to give women a tool for expression and a feeling of solidarity, Ghozlan said — though it is not a counseling hot line or a replacement for alerting police. After sending an SMS message to the site, women will receive encouragement, safety tips, and instructions on how to file a police report.

The plan resembles a site launched in multiple cities around the world, called Hollaback, where women write about incidents where they felt violated or harassed. The sites have gained popularity for the catharsis they offer, and posts frequently feature sassy language and a cell-phone picture of the perpetrator.

Cairo's online map will run off a platform called Ushahidi, an open-source software first developed to report violence in Kenya after 2008 elections there. Since then test models of it have run in South Africa, Gaza and India.

Women activists welcome the idea, but say it can't go far enough.

Azza Suleiman, director of the Center for Egyptian Woman's Legal Assistance, says Harassmap will be a useful but might exclude the illiterate and less tech-savvy Egyptians. Also, it faces a cultural norm that discourages women from talking about harassment or blames their dress or behavior.

Suleiman's center, located in the poor Cairo neighborhood of Bolaq al-Dakrour, helps women in legal issues of divorce or harassment and offers literacy classes. She noted that it takes a long time to gain the trust of a woman enough for her to speak about sexual abuse or harassment.

"The issue is sensitive," Suleiman said. "Sometimes, the first time, she doesn't tell, the second time, she doesn't tell, the third time, she tells."

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