The Egyptian cabinet’s approval of a new anti-sexual harassment law last week should be a cause for celebration — the result of years of concerted effort for change by human rights groups and activists.
The legislation, which has not yet been implemented, will indeed be a historic first. Egypt had not formerly criminalized sexual harassment, although articles in the penal code were sometimes used to prosecute offenders.
It is undoubtedly more comprehensive and tougher than what came before, but campaigners, experts, and Egyptian women themselves say that much, much more needs to be done.
Sexual harassment is shockingly common in Egypt. While 99.3 percent of Egyptian women have faced it in some form, 96.5 percent have been harassed in the form of touching, according to a United Nations report released last year.
'The youth noticed her. “Come here," he said. "And I’ll put it in your mouth."'
It takes place everywhere. Sheraz Sabry, an NGO worker told VICE News that while she was traveling through central Cairo on a public minibus a few weeks ago, the driver began openly masturbating and attempting to grope her. “It was horrible… he was trying to touch me and it was extremely scary,” Sabry said. The attack happened at 10.30 AM.
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The streets are no safer. Hanan, 28, who asked for her surname to be withheld, described a recent incident to VICE News. She was walking along a busy road and came upon a teenager openly urinating in the street while his friends loitered nearby. Traffic was so busy that she had no choice but to pass close by. The youth noticed her. “Come here," he said. "And I’ll put it in your mouth.”
His friends started to move towards Hanan. “My legs were shaking,” she said. “I was afraid they were going to do something, although I was also sure it wouldn’t happen… That situation was so stressful. Verbal harassment is awful; it upsets me the whole day… I’m 28, and a 15-year-old can make me so scared.”
Both women said these events were typical. “I could make a list of incidents and I’m sure every girl has been through the same experience,” Sabry said. “Harassment affects me on a daily basis and it doesn't matter how I dress, I always receive comments, all kinds of comments.”
'I only dare to look pretty when I’m out with my friends in a car.'
Hanan says she has been physically assaulted on three occasions and that stories she hears from her friends are far worse. She too says other forms of harassment are a daily occurrence.
Some of the most horrifying examples have taken place during the mass demonstrations that have become common since long-time ruler Hosni Mubarak was overthrown in 2011. Mobs of thugs took advantage of the chaos to gang-rape women with impunity. A Human Rights Watch report released last year documented rampant sexual violence during protests in iconic Tahrir Square. The violence was extreme. In at least one case a woman was raped with a blade, cutting her.
In 2012, a group of men sexually assaulted a group of protesters who were themselves calling for an end to sexual harassment.
Living in such an environment has taken a psychological toll on Hanan. “Even if nothing happens at all when you're walking down an empty street at night, the fear itself is exhausting because you know you're a sexual target. Sometimes my own shadow startles me because I think someone is following me.”
Hanan makes decisions on what to wear, carry, and even how to walk based on how they will affect her chances of being harassed. Instead of a purse or handbag, she now wears a backpack, because it keeps her hands free to fight off any attackers and, she thinks, makes her look less vulnerable.
The victim must bring the harasser to a police station themselves and then provide at least two eye-witnesses. This is an impossible task in most cases.
She also carries a large pointed nail file, Taser, and pepper spray wherever she goes, always wears a hijab, and attempts to look as nondescript as possible in public. “I only dare to look pretty when I’m out with my friends in a car,” she said.
The new law is supposed to prosecute anyone who "accosts others in a public or private place through following or stalking them, using gestures or words or through modern means of communication or in any other means through actions that carry sexual or pornographic hints." Violators face fines of between EGP10,000 ($1,400) and EGP20,000 or a prison term of at least one and as many as 10 years.
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Rights groups are cautiously optimistic. Dalia Abd el-Hameed, gender rights researcher with the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, told VICE News that the law is “a good first step” and should be welcomed.
However, el-Hameed wants to make sure that the wording of the law includes all sexualities and genders. She is also concerned by the suggestion that stalking or following must take place for an offence to be covered by the legislation. “These are unnecessary conditions for sexual harassment,” she said. ”It can take place without them."
Others, including Fatma Khafagy, director ombudswoman for gender equality at Egypt’s National Council for Women, have voiced major worries over requirements that the victim must bring the harasser to a police station themselves and then provide at least two eye-witnesses. This is an impossible task in most cases.
Nihal Saad, the co-founder of the Basma/Imprint Movement, an advocacy organization fighting against sexual harassment, told VICE News that she felt the new legislation had only been introduced in response to pressure from civil society and international groups rather than any real political desire to take meaningful action.
Hundreds marched on the streets of Cairo on February 6 last year to protest against increasing incidents of sexual harassment against women in the area. Protesters gathered in Sayeda Zeinab Square before making their way towards Tahrir Square.
“It’s still not good enough and it’s about how things are executed… Women need to have a harasser captured so they can go to the police and file a report and even then a police officer might refuse to do that. It’s not about the law, it’s about the whole process and the whole process is wrong.”
For a start, Saad said, officers need to be taught how to properly deal with survivors of rape or sexual violence and encourage them to file charges. "Without that, all I can see is that they aren’t taking it that seriously.”
'"Average" guys harass women because "everybody" is doing it… it's “fun,” and there's no punishment or even a reaction from onlookers, so why not?'
El-Hameed agreed, suggesting the government needs a “road map” to implementing the law effectively. This would include training for police officers and work with the judiciary to convince judges of the importance of the new legislation and of handing down proper penalties.
It will require a serious change in mindset. A report published by the International Federation for Human Rights noted that were over 250 documented cases of women being attacked by groups of men and boys, often armed, near Tahrir Square between November 2012 and July 2013. Not one of the attacks, it said, resulted in a prosecution.
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Authorities are not only ill-equipped and disinclined to help. All too often, they are harassers themselves. Sabry described being verbally abused by young uniformed men from their cars, for example. The forced "virginity tests" administered by the security forces to women in detention are apparently being employed once again too.
Because harassment is so ingrained in all parts of Egyptian society, even in those who should be protecting women from it, some doubt the new law will result in any notable changes at all. “I am not sure if it will make any difference,” Zahraa Mubarak, a student at Cairo University, told VICE News. “And even if it did reduce harassment on the street, it wouldn’t change the culture of it.”
The cultural prevalence and social acceptance of harassment underscores this entire issue. For many men, it is not viewed as something wrong, but just harmless amusement, Hanan said. "’Average’ guys harass women because ‘everybody’ is doing it… it's 'fun,' and there's no punishment or even a reaction from onlookers, so why not? It's fun to see a girl being scared of you, a girl stumbling because of you, a girl running away from you, it's fun to startle a girl or see her shy because of you… It's something to laugh about with your friends.”
Many women are afraid to talk about the issue, let alone report the crime itself.
Because harassment is not necessarily viewed as unlawful, or even wrong, Sabry said that even if a woman is lucky enough to catch her harasser, onlookers will often intervene in his defense, saying that he was joking, or that it was just a word, and that he shouldn’t be dealt with like a criminal. “For the new law to be successful, people need to understand what exactly the crime is and they need to know that harassment is not only the act of rape but it is also the verbal comments, the cat-calling and facial expressions.”
Another huge problem is that the blame for all of the above is often placed on the victim. In a recent, widely publicized incident a female student at Cairo University was sexually assaulted by a crowd of her male peers on campus. They surrounded, jeered at, and groped her, then tried to rip her clothes off. Others filmed the attack on their mobile phones amid laughs and smiles.
In the aftermath, the university’s president Gaber Nassar appeared to blame the victim for her choice of clothes — a pink long-sleeved sweater and black jeans — and said she might be punished along with her attackers. He later withdrew his remark, although, according to Ahram Online, local TV presenter Tamer Amin said of the victim: “These are dancers' clothes… provoking, seducing, revealing much more than they should.”
This victim blaming leaves women feeling utterly helpless and frustrated. “We are fucked whether we fight and hit the harasser or just walk away…. To people, we are the guilty ones because of how we dress,” Heba Gebril, an office manager from Cairo, told VICE News.
The result of this utter misproportion of blame is that survivors of harassment and assault are humiliated and stigmatized. Many women are afraid to talk about the issue, let alone report the crime itself.
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To tackle this el-Hameed said that aside from comprehensive implementation of the new law, major government efforts must invested in a huge social campaign to encourage women to speak out and for society to censure the perpetrator and not the victim.
She also advocated that sex education, sexual harassment, and gender identity classes be included in the school curriculum.
Changing a culture that so comprehensively permits harassment while silencing victims will not be easy nor fast, she says, and will only be possible with the help of political parties, social movements, education authorities, and many others. Then, and only then, can the promise held by finally criminalizing sexual harassment be realized. “All of these different parties are important agents of change and if they all are engaged, the law could actually materialize into something," el-Hameed said.
Follow John Beck on Twitter: @JM_Beck