x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Lara Logan awareness rally met with anger

The controversy surrounding that attack on the CBS reporter highlights the sensitive nature of talking about the endemic problem of sexual harassment in Egypt.

CAIRO // A demonstration in Tahrir Square to raise awareness about Lara Logan, the CBS reporter who was sexually assaulted as she covered the Egyptian revolution last month, was met with anger yesterday.

With emotions running high after the newly appointed prime minister, Essam Sharaf, was cheered during his appearance in the square, Egyptian men accused the organiser, Karim Mohy, of bringing shame on Egypt.

"There is no problem with harassment here," said one man. "This just makes Egyptians look bad."

Others, debating online before the protest, said there was a problem but complained that the demonstration focused unfairly on one foreigner.

The controversy highlighted the sensitive nature of talking about the endemic problem of sexual harassment in Egypt - something commentators said is often ignored.

Female activists also say they are concerned Egyptian women's rights are being overlooked as people seek to raise issues in the country's new open atmosphere.

"Harassment in Egypt has affected all women: Egyptian as well as foreign, young and old, Christian and Muslim, veiled and unveiled," Nehad Abu ElKomsan, the head of the independent Egyptian Center for Women's Rights (ECWR), said. "But for too long this has been a hidden issue."

A 2008 study by ECWR found that 83 per cent of Egyptian women and 98 per cent of foreign women had experienced harassment.

In November, a group of activists launched HarrassMap, a virtual map where women could text in the place where they were subjected to abuse. The map's founders record where harassment is most prevalent and target the area for awareness raising.

Over a two-month period they found the most common form of assault was touching, making up 19.3 per cent of cases. That was followed by comments, ogling, following and catcalls. Abuse happened on the streets and on public transport, but also in schools and universities, from men of all social and educational levels.

Observers point to a potent mixture of political, economic and sexual frustration that make sexual harassment such a big problem in Egypt.

"When you have an oppressed population full of young people without many career prospects, an alpha-male mentality to prove themselves to one another develops," said Mohamed Safi, a Nile FM DJ who launched an online petition to apologise not only to Lara Logan but to all women who had been harassed in Egypt.

Activists say the regime of the former president Hosni Mubarak worsened the issue for Egyptian women in particular by exploiting the culture of harassment.

"The ex-regime would promote ill-feeling towards women by making announcements that reinforced the view we should stay at home with our families," Ms ElKomsan said. "Secondly, security services would use sexual harassment as a way to break up protests."

Further, the government warned against harassing foreign women because it would discourage tourism. This both suggested that harassment was not wrong in itself and was tolerable when directed at Egyptian women.

Under these circumstances, women say the situation became both tolerated and hidden. Both ECWR and HarrassMap found that Egyptian women reported the incidents to neither their families nor to police. Their research found that police would often harass women, while their family would react by stopping them from going out alone.

While Egypt's penal code includes some articles on indecent behaviour, there is no specific legislation on sexual harassment - despite two draft bills submitted in 2010.

"When I talked about this issue in my show, the response that would come in was to ask why the women dressed like that. It was seen as their fault," said Mr Safi. "The attitude was very clear - and frustrating."

In post-revolution Egypt, there is tentative optimism that attitudes towards sexual abuse may change, building on steps in the last two years. In 2008, a truck driver became the first person to be sentenced to jail for groping a woman and the recent film 678 caused a flurry of talk after it portrayed three Egyptian women's experience of harassment.

"Despite the terrible thing that happened to Ms Logan, what is noticeable is that it was an unusual occurrence", Dalia Ziada, a young Egyptian human-rights activist who heads the Cairo office of the American Islamic Congress, said. "You had men and women sleeping in Tahrir Square and yet there were almost no reports of abuse."

Men, too, say that attitudes among their gender - 62 per cent of whom admitted harassing women to ECWR - are altering.

"You can clearly distinguish between before and after January 25," Mr Safi said. "Before the revolution there was a feel of apathy towards sexual harassment - not anymore."

Others are not as positive and say it is still unclear how far the revolution has truly affected the lot for women.

"The stories we're hearing so far are very mixed," Rebecca Chiao, one of HarrassMap's founders, said. "We've seen a decrease in the number of reports, but we've also seen an increase in the severity. We hardly ever saw reports of attempted rape and sexual assault, but we've gotten some in the last weeks."

Ms ElKomsan said while what happened to Ms Logan could be used to highlight harassment, the fight to tackle it would take many more years and had to come from Egyptian women themselves.

"We have removed some of the political frustration but you can't change social attitudes overnight," said Ms ElKomsan. "Women have been given confidence by this revolution - we now need them to speak out more loudly against harassment."

foreign.desk@thenational.ae