Tuesday, June 26, 2012

What's the use of one more blog post?

Over the years this blog has become less personal and more of an outlet for current events in Egypt or socio-political commentary, sometimes based on personal experience.

This post will be very personal.

The tweet read, “All I could see was leering faces . . sneering & jeering as I was tossed around like fresh meat among starving lions”.

Another woman attacked in Tahrir Square. I knew without opening the attached link. I opened it anyway. I didn’t want to read the story; I had to.

The most detailed first-person account of a sexual attack in Tahrir I’ve ever read. That’s what was in the link. I was sitting in a noisy café listening to – of all things – a song called “Past the Point of No Return.” I turned it off, and I read.

I was stripped naked… Hundreds of men… forcing their fingers inside me in every possible way… A small minority of men… tried to protect me… I felt surprisingly calm… Please God. Please make it stop… Women surrounded me and tried to cover my naked body… The men outside… wanted my blood… I was barefoot, dodging broken glass… We eventually… reached a government hospital… we were turned away… “Are you married? A virgin?”… I was refused examination and treatment.

An hour later I can’t get her words out of my head.

What if it had been me?

I was physically harassed once during the 30 months I’ve spent in Cairo. In comparison it was nothing. Yet a year and a half later I refuse to go anywhere in Maadi by myself because the memory makes me ill and nervous (Maadi has the highest concentration of Western foreigners of any neighborhood in Cairo).

It unnerved me enough that this is only the third time I’ve ever mentioned the incident.

I may not be blonde, but I’m young and pretty with fair skin and light eyes. I speak enough Arabic to talk to a cab driver but no more. Sure, I’m good at reading crowds. I’ve been going to Egyptian demonstrations longer than most Egyptians. Yes, I’ve actually taken a class on risk management.

But the crowd can change in a moment.

I’m not infallible. Gut instinct is not infallible. What if, wanting that one last photo, I stayed just a minute too long? What if the situation changed too quickly for me to get away? What if I got caught up in a conversation and didn’t notice the crowd shift?

What if, what if, what if.

They’re useless but I can’t get them out of my head. I keep picturing myself – graphically – in this woman’s position. I picture my reflection in the mirror. It’s terrifying.

 I love Egypt. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t. There are things I hate but I’m still here and I don’t want to leave. At the same time, I came to Egypt as a journalist and I haven’t gone to Tahrir Square in weeks.

I tell myself I’m being lazy, that I should go down and take some pictures and judge the feel of the crowd for myself. After all, I was in Tahrir Square on the 25th and the 28th of January. I was by Maspiro the night dozens were killed in clashes between Coptic Christian demonstrators and the military. I was in Mohamed Mahmoud Street choking on tear gas alongside Egyptian men and women last November.

But as more and more women report graphic sexual assaults in Tahrir I’m terrified I’ll be next. I loathe that fear almost more than I loathe the fact that the fear is warranted.

I remember going to Tahrir and not being touched by a single man, except honest-to-goodness accidents. The last few weeks, I don’t know a single female who has gone to Tahrir without being groped at least once.

So what do I do? Stay safely in Zamalek and talk politics with my friends? Offer opinions on the “current situation” without actually going out in the streets, something I love? Pack up and move somewhere I can wear skirts and sleeveless shirts without a leering man with a disgusting comment on every single street corner?

Scratch that option. Recent statistics show at least 1 in 6 college-age men in America will admit to raping a woman in anonymous surveys, so long as the word ‘rape’ is left out of the definition (“rape” is defined by the insertion of any object into any orifice of the body without consent).

Anyone who knows me knows if there’s one thing I’m not, it’s helpless. Yet against this I am utterly and completely helpless. It’s frustrating and infuriating and I feel I’m losing a battle I have no idea how to fight.

I almost didn’t post this. I thought, what’s the use of one more blog post? But we cannot doubt the power of our own voices. Eventually it will be that one pissed off woman outing her harasser in the street, that one man jumping between a woman and her attacker, maybe even that one angry blog post that tips the balance.

If we – men and women – stay silent, we will lose. So be loud. Be insistent. Make a scene and refuse to be silenced and we will win.

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."

Find more posts about this below:

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

What Men Say to Men Who Harass Women on the Streets

Video in Arabic with English subtitles. Produced by Sallie Pisch and Anum Khan.

Harassment affects every woman in Egypt, no matter who she is or where she's from. Muslim or Christian, conservative or liberal, married or single, Egyptian or foreign - we all have to put up with it. 

In support of '#EndSH' day, here's a message from Egyptian men to Egyptian men: harassment isn't cool.

UPDATE: So far, the video has been picked up by: