Egyptian women battle harassment on the streets

Women's groups call on President Morsy to help combat increasing incidents of sexual harassment against women.

Egyptian woman protests in Cairo 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany)
Egyptian woman protests in Cairo 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany)
Egyptian women’s groups called again on President Mohamed Morsy and his government this week to help combat increasing incidents of sexual harassment against women.
The women’s groups, part of the Fouada Watch initiative, monitored how Morsy and state institutions performed regarding women’s rights in the period from August 13 though September 15.
The monitoring revealed that, as sexual harassment incidents rise, outward signs of religiosity and religious extremism are also growing in Egyptian society.
The initiative said that last month during Id al-Fitr, the holiday celebrating the end of Ramadan, their incident room received 53 telephone calls from women aged 18-25, who reported street harassment incidents including sexual touching, grabbing and cursing.
The results of this most recent monitoring come after women’s rights groups have complained about high rates of sexual harassment for years.
According to a 2008 study by the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights, street harassment is shockingly commonplace, with 83 percent of Egyptian women and 98% of foreign women reporting incidents.
Around half of those surveyed said they had been harassed on a daily basis.
Now, however, ECWR and other rights groups say that the situation is deteriorating, with harassment leading to higher levels of violence against women.
In a recent press release, ECWR called on the authorities to prosecute the killer of a 20- year-old Egyptian woman murdered earlier this month after being sexually assaulted.
According to ECWR, the victim was walking with a friend in her home village of Assuit, Upper Egypt, when a man grabbed her sexually without her consent. In response, the woman spat at her attacker and shouted at him. The man then shoved her to the ground and kicked her, finally shooting her several times.
“This is a serious indicator concerning women’s safety in the streets, as this phenomenon of sexual harassment is leading to murder crimes,” ECWR added.
Earlier this month, the press reported that a mob of unknown assailants attacked women demonstrating against sexual harassment in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.
This week, pan-Arabic station Radio Sawa published a lengthy report on the growing issue of sexual harassment in Egypt. It included an interview with a young woman named Shirin, who claimed Cairo police had initially refused to take her seriously and had even mocked her when she tried to file a harassment complaint.
Shirin, a social worker, said a youth had grabbed her body when she was walking on the street. When police would not let her file a report, she wrote about the incident on her Facebook page, Radio Sawa said.
Radio Sawa noted that this month, ECWR sent a draft law to Morsy calling on him to address the issue by making street harassment a criminal offense.
ECWR said that the president has yet to respond.
This is not the first time that Egyptians have called on the government to criminalize harassment. In May, before Morsy was elected, Egyptian liberals last called for a law against sexual harassment.
They were unsuccessful, however.
Whether or not Morsy does move to criminalize harassment, Egyptian NGOs and women’s groups are working at a grassroots level to battle the problem and raise public awareness about it.
Recent initiatives include volunteer street patrols dispatched by an NGO, the Imprint Movement, during Id al-Fitr. The volunteers not only reported sexual harassers to police during what Egyptian daily al-Masry al-Youm described as a “wave of street harassment,” but also took photographs to document incidents.
Women’s groups are not the only organizations involved in the anti-harassment campaign.
The US Embassy in Cairo organized a recent Open Mic event in which Egyptian and foreign women were invited to speak out about their experiences of sexual harassment.
Some of Egypt’s media have also become involved in the anti-harassment campaign, with independent daily al- Watan holding a seminar this week to discuss ways to combat the problem.Al-Watan’s editor in chief Magdi al-Gallad said on Wednesday that it was “time to break the silence” about the issue and put “serious solutions” in place to fight it.
Among those attending were women’s rights champions Azza Kamel, who heads Cairo-based NGO Parliament of Women, and Maya Morsy, Egypt’s country coordinator for UN Women, which supported a May anti-harassment campaign in which women and men lined the capital’s sidewalks and held protest signs.
One of Egypt’s more long-term anti-harassment projects which has garnered international attention, combines social entrepreneurship with mobile technology, the internet and social media to raise awareness of the extent of sexual harassment in the country’s streets. HarassMap allows women and girls to use their cellphones to report street harassment from anywhere in the country, via text message or email, with the incidents then plotted on an interactive online map on the project’s website.
Rebecca Chiao, an American who has lived in Egypt for eight years, founded HarassMap together with three other women.
HarassMap lists street harassment incidents by type, including touching, catcalling, ogling, stalking or following, indecent exposure and rape or sexual assault.
One of the most recent reports on the site details a “drive-by motorcycle grab,” in which a Cairo woman was grabbed sexually by a young man who drove up behind her on a motorcycle as she walked with her husband.
“After we receive the report, we send an auto-reply to the reporter with helpful information: numbers of lawyers who are willing to help them free of charge, psychological help and other important tips on how to take a legal action if they want,” Chiao said in a recent interview with online magazine Digibuzz, which reports on digital and social media trends in the Middle East.
According to HarassMap’s website, the women’s reports identify harassment hotspots, which both warn other women to adopt extra caution when walking in those areas and assist police in knowing where to take action.
Holly Kearl, founder of US-based nonprofit Stop Street Harassment, said HarassMap has done a “tremendous job of raising awareness in Egypt.”
“The large collection of stories and the visual aspect of the map make it easy for people to understand, and the convenient way to submit stories makes it easy for people to use it,” said Kearl, who also praised HarassMap’s offline initiatives, which include sending teams of volunteers into neighborhoods to talk about street harassment.