Thursday, June 14, 2012

Challenging sexual harassment in Egypt's public spaces

'#EndSH' - that was the hashtag dominating Egyptians' twitter feeds yesterday. End sexual harassment. Harassment is a rampant problem on the streets of Cairo: 83% of Egyptian women and 98% of foreign women have admitted harassed (2008 survey by the Egyptian Center for Women's Rights).
Image courtesy of ihollaback.org.
The survey also revealed that approximately half of those women face harassment on a daily basis.

In most cases, harassment is limited to cat-calling across the street - "ya aasl!" (honey) - or whispered comments as a woman walks by - "We fuck now?" But while a minority, groping, attempted fingering, and public masturbation are uncomfortably common. Harassers come from every class of society, from youth on the street cat-calling to well-dressed businessmen in Mercedes propositioning women as they drive by.

"When harrasers include youth, married men, fathers, policemen, taxi drivers, etc. It means we all know or live with a harraser & can ," wrote Merna on Twitter.

"I won't forget the time a gross fat man on a bike was masturbating to me as I walked down then street, shouting out obscenities. #EndSH," posted Jazz Khalifa on Twitter.

"#Maadi Rd9, walked a girl I worked w to her Moms car @ the end of the road. Guy groped & taunted her, I decked him. #EndSH #Egypt,"wrote Patricia Stein

Organizations such as HarassMap.org attempt to pinpoint and combat harassment, as well as providing women with a place to vent about what's happened to them. All day on June 13, HarassMap posted women's stories of harassment on Twitter. Some of the posts were horrifying. "Teenagers grab your ass and film on their mobiles," read one tweet. "Ramsis station, wait the train get your breasts grabbed," said another.

One goal of the 'EndSH' blogging day is to open up discussion. Talking about sexual harassment is very much a taboo, with Egyptian mothers shushing their daughters about the issue, teaching them from a young age that they should remain quiet about whatever harassment they've been subjected to on the streets of Cairo (this statement summarizes many personal accounts from female Egyptian friends).

Deena Adel posted on Twitter, "Do you realize how much time a woman in Egypt has to spend in a state of defense on any given day? ... Things I have to do when on the street: 1-Avoid eye contact. 2-Cross the street every 2 mins. 3-Hold my keys in case I need to defend myself".

In a very powerful blog post, Merna Thomas writes about her lifelong experience with harassment in Egypt, letting strangers inside her head: "See, the thing is, harassment, especially the non-stop daily/hourly kind makes you feel ugly. Every body part that they look at, comment on, and touch is ugly. It's ugly and it's wrong. And that becomes your body image."

This graffiti, painted in downtown Cairo, threatens harassers with castration.
In a blog post here, Mina Naguib talks about feeling helpless to protect his female friends from harassment. Referring to plans to hold a stand against harassment in Tahrir Square, Naguib writes: "I hope it turns out to be a great success not by men defending women but men and women standing up side by side against the regime and the society."

Naguib's post also touches on the fact that it doesn't matter what a woman is wearing - she'll get harassed anyway. Underscoring the point, Sandy wrote on Twitter, "#EndSH do you know that girls in Nikkab actually get harassed? Because men believe she must be hiding something!"

Along a similar line, Cairo-based journalist Ghazala Irshad wrote on Twitter, "I think of #endSH as less a campaign against sexual harassment & more of a campaign FOR respecting women..."

"Media, film, and others need to empower women to take action and spread fear among the harassers if they do harass. It works," wrote Egyptian Mohamed Abdelfattah on Twitter. "Utilizing the powers of media and cinema to #EndSH is possible. It can have a transformative impact in a few years, believe me."

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