Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 1 June 2020

Women are silenced by Cairo's worsening sexual harassment

Egyptians are using technology to tackle sexual harassment, but the attitudes of the whole society need addressing

Many Egyptian women I know believe that the symbol of Tahrir Square has faded. Although women have been at the forefront of the revolution, as the frequency of assaults in the square rises, these people who fought for freedom risk being forced to stay at home by a growing mentality that demonstrations, and even politics, are not places for women.

Women tell me sexual harassment is getting worse, and I agree. During a 200-metre walk in downtown Cairo, I get harassed almost a dozen times, from leers to outright taunts. Cairo has never been an easy city for women.

I was 23 when I first moved here in 2006. Back then, I had a better sense of humour about it. We used to joke that every woman in Cairo must have at least one terrible taxi driver story. These days, I find little humour in the leers and taunts.

Back then, people were largely uninterested in admitting sexual harassment was a problem. I often was dismissed by male, upper -middle class Egyptian friends as being too sensitive to harmless flirting. They said I garnered attention as a foreigner. The upper middle-class Egyptian women I knew at the time preferred to take cars everywhere, avoiding the hassle of the streets.

Even before the revolution, young women and men who were frustrated with the daily harassment launched initiatives such as Harassmap, which pinpoints areas of sexual harassment and, more recently, has sent volunteers into communities to initiate dialogue.

Women's involvement in Egypt's public sphere has always been complicated. During Eid Al Fitr in 2006, a group of men on Talaat Harb Street pulled apart women's clothes and assaulted them.

A few weeks before that, female activists and journalists covering a protest - which were far smaller back then and tightly controlled by the state - had been pinned down and groped by baltageya, paid thugs of the Mubarak regime. As a young woman interested in journalism and the Middle East, I was worried by the assault. Even then, Egypt was ill-equipped to address the problem of harassment, which became even more threatening as part of the state's efforts to stifle freedoms.

The problem has continued since the fall of Mubarak. Last December, there was a rallying cry after a young woman in an abaya was photographed being stripped by military police as one stomped on her torso. In the media, she was referred to as the "blue bra girl", but the discussion didn't always centre on the actions of the police. Instead, discussion reflected the belief among a large portion of Egyptian society that the revolution was no place for a woman.

Large protests continue to be marked by harrowing assaults on women by mobs of men. The Muslim Brotherhood has been accused of using similar strong-arm tactics. Sexual violence has increasingly become a tool to prevent women from political engagement.

While reporting last November during protests on Mohamed Mahmoud Street, off Tahrir Square, I was caught in a crush of people and groped multiple times before being led to safety by an onlooker. Since then, I am more hesitant to enter the square unless with a larger group. Many women wear layers of loose-fitting clothing, but that offers little protection. The mass assaults against females in the square are increasing.

Fed up, a flood of anti-harassment groups have sprung up. This Eid Al Adha, a group of vigilantes used spray paint to tag young men with roving hands, marking them as harassers as part of the "Be a Man" campaign. More recently, Tahrir Bodyguard uses social media to organise ground campaigns against sexual assault. In yellow vests and helmets, a group of volunteers set up at various checkpoints throughout the square, including a lookout tower to better spot mob attacks. Anyone who feels threatened can tweet their location to @TahrirBodyguard, and volunteers are dispatched to assist. Although only a few weeks old, the Twitter account has 2,700 followers, and has reportedly stepped in to stop multiple assaults in the square.

These groups are raising awareness at a time when the government has paid little attention. Efforts like Tahrir Bodyguard are plugging holes, not rebuilding the dam. Instead, activists must address the problem at its heart - society's attitudes towards women. Although the revolution gave many women a voice, society does not want to listen.


Megan Detrie is an independent journalist based in Cairo

Online: www.megandetrie.com

Updated: December 19, 2012 04:00 AM