Danger in the Streets

Egyptian Women Fight Public Sexual Harassment

Lately, women on the streets of Egypt have been under assault -- threatened by looks, by words and by physical attacks. As more Egyptian women claim the freedom and power to enter the public sphere, they are being confronted with a growing wave of public sexual harassment.

AP Photo/Ben Curtis
Protestors demonstrate against sexual attacks on women and the government's failure to investigate them, in downtown Cairo, Egypt on Thursday, November 9, 2006View Larger >


The Egyptian Centre for Women's Rights
The Egyptian Centre for Women's Rights' Campaign Poster reads: "Safety for everybody. When you catcall...what do you gain?" View Larger >

This trend gained a sudden worldwide audience in 2006, when amateur videos captured crowds of men surrounding and groping women during a religious festival. These videos were shared on the internet for the world to witness.

Targets are not confined to a specific group. Women of every age and class are targets of obscene behavior, even those who dress modestly in veils.

Experts put forth many explanations -- the explosion of easily available sexual material, lack of education about sex and sexuality and Egypt's economy. Due to the high cost of living, couples are forced to wait to marry until later in life, leading, some say, to rising sexual frustration in a portion of the male population.

Whatever the cause, women are afraid to report the harassment to police, worried that they will be ignored, or worse, blamed for their attacks.

The Egyptian Centre for Women's Rights has declared this "a social cancer." Their campaign against public sexual harassment is fighting to enforce existing laws protecting women, create new legislation, and break the silence around this taboo subject.

I.M.O.W. spoke to Engy Ghozlan, Project Coordinator for the Egyptian Centre for Women's Rights.

How did you become involved in the campaign against sexual harassment?

You hear comments on the street like: "You belong to the house." "You shouldn't be on the street." It took me years to recognize that the depression I was having whenever I walked on the street was because I was not acting, I was just silent.

For me, it was an issue that I'm not going to be a victim of any sexual violence against me anymore. I felt that it's the time to move from being a victim to being one who helps others and helps herself to actually survive everyday on the street. I might not be able to stop it by myself but at least talking about it actually gave me the power to feel that I don't have to feel sad anymore, I know that I am doing something, and this is enough for me until I reach the day I can see legislation that can protect me and other girls on the street.

Does the sexual harassment occur in a variety of settings? It's on the street -- but is it also in homes and schools?

Yes, it happens in houses, it happens in schools and universities, it happens, of course, in the workplace. Girls who have to work in shops or restaurants, the owners use them sexually. They are sure that she can't leave, and she can't go and tell anyone because it is her reputation that she'll be hurting.

Girls sometimes face sexual harassment on the street. If they stopped and told the guy, "Don't do this!" or "You're attacking me!"--sometimes people on the street don't support a girl-- they actually blame her.

In Egypt, if a girl goes to a police station, people start gossiping about her. So girls can't go to the police, girls can't talk about it. Our first idea was to break the silence and let girls start talking.

Is it hard to do this in a culture where there's not a lot of conversation about sexuality in general?

At the time the campaign started, talking about sexual harassment or anything with a sexual nature was a taboo. There was this denial from girls, they said they didn't experience it, but when you talked to them a little bit away from sexual words, they started writing, and what they wrote was horrible.

We were really happy that, finally, people were talking about something that related to their sexuality or to their bodies. We found lots of girls who were blaming themselves for the issue. The girls thought that the reason they were getting harassed was because of their bodies and because their bodies were beautiful, whether they wore a veil or covered their faces or not.

Part of your campaign is to target both sides; you try to raise awareness among young men as well as women. Have you seen changes in the men you've worked with?

When you ask the question "Why do you sexually harass?" you get a very stupid answer from guys. They have this idea that girls like to be sexually harassed, at least verbally, because it gives them the impression that they are nice, they are beautiful, and guys think this is something that girls actually like.

But now, some of them say: "I think of my sister, I think of my mom. What if my mom was walking on the street and someone touched her? I would feel hurt, I would feel scared for her. I would feel I wanted to protect her. And maybe, thinking the other way, if I imagine that any woman on the street could be someone in my family, that would actually make me change."

For people who practice something like this for many years, just raising awareness is not enough to change their behavior. You need to change the circumstances around that behavior. The circumstance that is in our hands is to change legislation.

The economic situation that would allow men to get married sooner and actually start a life, to allow guys to find jobs and find themselves and have potential is not something that I can guarantee in the short term. What I can say is that if we had legislation along with a change in the economic and social situation, maybe one day soon we will see a change in the behavior.

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