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Harassing the Harasser: Egyptian Justice

By Sarah Lipkis 

Sexual harassment is not a new problem in Egypt. According to a 2013 UN study, 48.9% of Egyptian women stated that since 2011, instances of harassment have become prevalent in everyday life. Overall, about 90% of Egyptian women reported having been sexually harassed at some point. The study also points to a common theme in sexual harassment cases:  blaming the victim and excusing the actions of the perpetrator. Thus, sexual harassment is often not treated as a crime but as an everyday occurrence. Lastly, the study finds that women of all ages and social classes are being abused in public spaces. Given the data of the UN study, the question then remains—what is being done to address the issue of pervasive harassment?

There are conflicting mentalities regarding who is to blame for sexual harassment, but the general opinion is that the victim is to blame because she was ‘asking for it,’ because of the way she dressed, behaved, or conducted herself in the public eye. In this instance, the perpetrator is not blamed for his actions. Rather, law enforcement accepts clichéd excuses such as ‘he couldn’t help himself’ as legitimate reasons for illegal behavior. Besides the trauma of harassment, victims face the various social stigmas that follow an attack. Many victims prefer to remain silent for fear of drawing attention to themselves, and possibly inciting further violence against their families.

However, sexual harassment is illegal under Egyptian law. In many instances, these laws are simply ignored or not enforced. And women, too scared of police brutality,  remain silent. Though the government has promised to do more, there has been little change. Social groups are filling the space left by the government. These groups are working to raise awareness about the issue, trying either to change public opinion about sexual harassment or enacting their own form of vigilante justice by forcefully shaming perpetrators.

In the last few years non-violent groups like HarassMap have taken the initiative to fight myths and stereotypes that people have about sexual assault. Their aim is not only to stop people from blaming the victim, but also to encourage bystanders to act when they see someone being harassed. According to Noora Flinkman, the Junior Marketing and Communications Manger at HarassMap, “sexual harassment is a social problem,” which has become, “a cool thing to do.” HarassMap developed an app that allows users to post spots across the country where harassment occurred. The group then organizes volunteers to go into their own neighborhoods and talk to people on the street, mostly people of “semi-permittance,” such as shopkeepers, and convince them to act like bodyguards on their streets by helping to abolish myths about sexual harassment, stopping an assault in progress or by being “safe places” where women can go if in trouble.  Unfortunately, female volunteers sometimes face sexual harassment, a consequence of the fact that their attempt to talk about sexual harassment will prompt others to see their actions as invitations to harass. The reality, according to HarassMap, is that everyone at some point will witness sexual harassment, and the goal is to encourage those bystanders to take immediate action to stop it.

Movies and cartoons also a pivotal role in curbing harassment. Cairo 678, a film directed by Mohamed Diab, focuses on three women who are struggling with their day-to-day lives after being harassed. These women deal with the toll the attack takes on their relationships, their inability to attain justice from the government, and the steps they take to transform from victims into survivors. Like HarassMap, Cairo 678 aims to show that the victim is not to blame. Her actions are not the cause of sexual harassment. Rather, there is a societal norm that makes harassment acceptable. The cartoon Qahera has similar goals. Qahera depicts a strong female protagonist that is able to stand up for herself. In one of the strips, the protagonist protects herself and another woman from being sexually assaulted by punching the group of men in their throats. Together, Qahera and Cairo 678depict strong female characters dealing with the issues and consequences of sexual harassment themselves. The overarching belief of organizations like HarassMap, movies like Cairo 678, and cartoons like Qahera is that to prevent sexual harassment social attitude needs to change.

Vigilante groups are also working to combat sexual harassment, albeit with different tactics. The groups of mostly young men with names like “Be a Man” and “Harass the Harasser” patrol their neighborhoods with the goal of punishing harassers. Punishments range from marking the harasser with spray paint in order to embarrass him or physically beating him up. These groups are less concerned with social attitudes and more focused on what they perceive to be justice. Other groups like “Tahrir Bodyguards” fall somewhere in the middle between social organizations and vigilante groups. The “Tahrir Bodyguards” work to both change public opinion as well act as patrolmen at protests in order to assist female victims. If the government is unable to do anything, these groups see it as their duty to combat sexual harassment.

Due to the Egyptian government’s inability to rectify a perverse situation, these groups are filling a vacuum left by the government. Regardless of their methods, the cartoons, movies, social organizations, and vigilante groups are striving to combat the issue of sexual harassment both peacefully and violently. Though they serve a clear positive objective—an end to sexual harassment— the question is, how much effect can they have without help from the government?  If the government is unwilling to do anything to prevent sexual harassment, then the idea that sexual harassment is somehow socially acceptable will continue to be reinforced.

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Sarah Lipkis is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.

[Photo courtesy of Compfight]

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