From Silence to Culture Shift: Inside the Fight Against Sexual Harassment in Egypt

The #MeToo campaign that took the world by storm strongly resonated with women in Egypt.

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Emboldened by the global flood of women breaking their silence on sexual harassment, Egyptian women also took to social media to share their experiences. Defying social norms, Egyptian women bravely spoke up to tell their stories of sexual abuse and harassment with the hope of showing the magnitude of the problem in Egyptian society today.

“Not a single day goes by when I don’t have to worry about my physical or emotional integrity on Egyptian streets,” one woman wrote on Facebook. “It’s never safe.” She isn’t alone: According to a recent UN report, 99.3 percent of Egyptian women are victims of sexual harassment, including verbal abuse, groping and sometimes even rape. Sexual harassment is so widespread in the country that some human rights activists describe sexual harassment in Egypt as an epidemic; that epidemic reached its peak during the January 2011 uprising, when women became victims of a series of mob sexual assaults during protests at Tahrir square.

2011 was also a turning point for many women: They started speaking out. They were no longer afraid to tell their stories. They took to the streets to protest sexual violence and demanded their voices be heard. Their signs read “Silence is unacceptable; my anger will be heard,” and “Down with sexual harassment.”

Egypt’s new law criminalizing sexual harassment and assault that came into effect in July 2014 signaled a new sign of hope for many Egyptian women, as did a recent court sentencing of seven men to life imprisonment for sexual assault. But while social media platforms and campaigns like #MeToo have given Egyptian women the opportunity to raise awareness on sexual harassment and shed light on their experiences, much work remains to shift behavior and culture.

“Women are afraid of being blamed for the assault,” Aliaa Soliman, Communications Manager at HarassMap, a volunteer-based organization that works to end sexual harassment, told Ms. “Our culture creates so many excuses for the harasser. People will ask the woman ‘why are you wearing these tight jeans?’ or ‘why are you out in the first place?’… These are the kinds of comments that women hear all the time when they get sexually harassed.”

When Amira, a 26 year old who was sexually harassed on public transportation, reported her incident to the police, they told her to go home. When she insisted, they told her that they know who her father is and where he works. “They stood uncomfortably close to me the whole time and everybody in the building seemed to be undressing me with their eyes,” said Amira in her interview with Egyptian Streets, an independent news media organization in Egypt. “They catcalled me and whispered dirty comments.”

“Punishing the harasser is always a good thing of course,” Soliman said. “However, the fact that sexual harassment is culturally not recognized as a crime needs more awareness. People need to be more aware about why the law is in place, and why sexual harassment is being criminalized. If people are not convinced with the law or don’t understand why sexual harassment is wrong, then the law will not be very effective.”

Many women in Egypt still choose to remain silent. And until new earth is broken in the fight against assault and harassment, many still will. “All of society must be engaged in stopping sexual harassment,” Soliman said. “Bystanders must act if they see harassment happening in front of their own eyes. Harassers must also know that there will be consequences for their actions. We have all to create a culture that simply doesn’t accept sexual harassment anymore.”

May El Habachi specializes in writing about development, health and expat life. Her writing has been featured in leading international publications including Newsweek Middle East, Global Living, Expat Go Malaysia, Kuwait Bazaar and Fair Observer, among others.

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