Catcalled in Cairo: Ending Sexual Harassment in Egypt

Anti-sexual harassment march in Egypt (Gigi Ibrahim via Flickr)

by Monique Bouffé

Sexual harassment towards women in Egypt is notorious.

It is almost impossible to walk down a street in Cairo without being whistled at, whispered, tooted, or catcalled, and Egyptian women, regardless of their clothes or hijab know this. And since women began uploading their experiences to YouTube, Egypt has gained an international reputation for street harassment.

But this November, Bassita, an Egyptian NGO, made history by launching a new campaign against sexual harassment on public transportation. The campaign challenges the “silent bystander” – those who see a woman harassed and do nothing about it. The video stars Egyptian actor Menna Shalabi and musician Hany Adel and is backed by the Ministry of Interior.

This campaign is urgently needed. A 2017 Reuters poll ranked Cairo the most dangerous megacity for women worldwide. The impact of such persistent sexual harassment is humiliating and intrusive. It accumulates on you; makes you shrink into yourself, and try to be invisible. It slowly but surely leeches all sense of identity and confidence from your being.

This is not the first campaign to be launched about sexual harassment, nor the first time the government has taken a stance.

Government responses have in the past been underwhelming, and limited to penalisation. Verbal sexual harassment carries a minimum sentence of six months in prison and a fine of at least EGP 3,000 (US$167), and unwanted sexual contact a minimum sentence of one year and a fine between EGP10,000 ($558) and EGP 20,000 ($1,117).

This effort is wholly inadequate given that the problem is not that law is not in place; it is that the culture of misogyny is so deeply embedded that there is little to no chance of a successful prosecution.

Ultimately, public harassment is just the tip of the iceberg. It is the glaze on an attitude which goes far deeper and is much more toxic.

Street harassment is a window into deeply rooted ideas about women and their status; about their bodies, their agency; and their worth.

Ultimately, women are seen as objects to please, to look pretty, and to take care of the home. They are emotional, not rational. They must be modest, subservient, and domesticated. If it is acceptable to harass a woman in broad daylight in a city with 19 million inhabitants, it is disturbing to think of what kind of mistreatment goes unreported in private spaces.

The Reuters survey that rates Cairo as the most dangerous city for women in the world asked experts in 19 cities not just how well women are protected from sexual violence and harmful cultural practices, but also if they have access to good healthcare, finance and education.

In ranking most dangerous, Cairo surpassed Karachi and Kinshasa. Harmful attitudes towards women pervade every sector of public life.

One Amnesty report found that 47.4 percent of married, separated or widowed women had experienced domestic violence, and 39 percent of those women agreed that a husband is justified in beating his wife in certain circumstances.

This demonstrates that misogynistic attitudes are not just a men’s issue in Egypt, but that they are reinforced by women themselves. This accounts for why so many survivors of domestic violence believe their abusive experiences may be justified.

Education also plays a significant role; many women do not know that verbal harassment on the street is a crime and accept different forms of violence against women as a social and cultural norm.Even if a woman, who is harassed on the street, knows it is a crime, she is unlikely to be believed by police and the chances of reaching prosecution are even lower.

The actor and activist Amal Fathy was sentenced to two years in prison after calling out two incidents of sexual harassment in a video on her Facebook page. Living in a culture of misogyny, speaking out against sexual harassment often means speaking out against the state – and that is the most dangerous act an Egyptian citizen can do.

In this sense, then, a campaign which encourages bystanders to defend women when they are being harassed is necessary, in a culture where women are disbelieved and punished for speaking out. But if bystanders themselves think such behaviour is acceptable, this call will fall on deaf ears.

To bring to an end to street harassment, the tightly knotted culture of objectifying women which pervades all aspects of Egypt’s private and public life needs to be undone.

While campaigns like this are a small, if superficial step forward, the really crucial factor is better education. Women in Egypt deserve better, but there is a long road ahead, and Bassita’s campaign is simply a good start.

Reprinted, with permission, from The New Arab.

Monique Bouffé is a legal scholar and advocate with a focus on Public International Law. She has worked with asylum seekers and refugees in Egypt and is currently working with vulnerable and gang affected young people in London. Her work focuses on the impact of European immigration policy on the current refugee crisis. Follow her on Twitter: @moniquebouffe.

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