By Salma Abou Hussein
This week marks five years since the dawn of a major transition in Egypt. This transition occurred on January 25, 2010, when a revolution swept through the country, with citizens demanding action and change for all Egyptians. This was the first time I witnessed three generations of women in my family protesting; casting their votes, and for the first time, maintaining a strong presence in public spaces.
These past five years have marked a lot of firsts for many women in Egypt. For example, this is the first time many women have had the power to reclaim some measure of ownership of their rights and physical integrity, which have been restricted for far too long. And while we must celebrate these steps forward, we must also reflect on what challenges we are currently facing. In Egypt after the revolution, it has become clear we have a long way ahead of us in one of the most pressing issues Egyptian women experience on a daily basis: sexual harassment.
When the revolution commenced, women’s voices were magnified in the public sphere, which could be seen by the critical role they played in street protests during the political upheaval. Their increased voice, visibility and civic participation then ignited a nation-wide discussion on matters of gender-based violence in public spaces, including sexual harassment, which had previously been largely ignored by policy-makers before the revolution.
During the revolution, the world was shocked when news of gang rapes and rampant sexual assaults against female protesters came to light. As a result, protesters issued an even stronger call to end intimidation against women in public places. A surge in anti-sexual harassment movements has risen in response to the experiences women endured while daring to raise their voices in the streets. Operation Anti Sexual Harassment (OpAntiSH), HarassMap, Shoft Ta7arosh (I Saw Harassment), Imprint and Nazra for Feminist Studies are all initiatives and organizations that had a significant role during this massive political instability. They were instrumental in saving lives during street protests by issuing collective public statements in which they held the state accountable for protecting women and ensuring their safety. As a result of this advocacy, for the first time in Egypt’s history, a law was passed that imposed jail terms of no fewer than six months and/or fines levied upon those found guilty of sexual harassment in public or private spaces.
Even though a groundbreaking law has been passed to hold perpetrators accountable, a change in legislation is insufficient if not accompanied by a change in social norms. Unfortunately, this has not been the case so far. Only a few days after the law went into effect, a woman was stripped naked and beaten in the middle of Tahrir square during the inauguration celebration of the current president, Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi. The Ministry of Interior responded immediately by arresting seven men, thought to have been connected to the assault, imposing heavy court sentences on some of them in a ruling seen by many as unprecedented in Egypt.
The law was indeed a symbolic move, one that raised much-needed public awareness. It will, however, remain insufficient in protecting women if it is not properly enforced through state entities at the community level and accompanied by a shift in public attitudes about the acceptability of violence against women, a much harder change to make. As long as gender-based violence is employed as a tool for security forces to dismantle protests and threaten opponents, we will not see an end to this problem. This is where the role of the civil society comes in.
After the revolution, groups of young men and women formed protection groups to intervene in mob assaults, in order to protect female protesters from potential harassment. Because many Egyptians don’t believe the state has done an adequate job of protecting their citizens, many laud the presence of these protection groups, which seek to provide a safe space for women and those protesting.
These groups have now expanded and are present in activities beyond political protests to include activities such as sports initiatives. They have been created for groups of runners and cyclists so they can practice outdoors, an activity that, unfortunately, has also exposed women to violence. These groups now help women reassert their right to practice outdoor sports and reclaiming the public sphere.
A bottom-up approach, where women themselves—as well as their male allies–speak up against gender-based violence, is critical to ending sexual violence. However, this means women and men alike must recognize that violence is unacceptable. Unfortunately this is not the case. Perhaps surprisingly, even for women, the recent Survey of Young People in Egypt (SYPE), conducted by the Population Council in 2014, found that 56 percent of women still believe that those who dress “provocatively” in public deserve to be harassed. Just a few months ago, an infamous TV hostess defamed and publicly accused a woman who was stalked and beaten by a man in a mall, of dressing and behaving indecently. And in an unprecedented move as a response to her statements, a number of her TV show’s sponsors, the majority of which were multinational corporations, have halted their sponsorship and there was a call for a public boycott that led to the eventual temporary suspension of her show. Change can happen, and we all have a role to play in creating that change. Civil society engagement, public awareness, proper law enforcement, and engagement by the private sector are all pieces that must be used to dismantle the far too common rhetoric that blames women for violence.
In order to end the violence that is all too prevalent in the lives of the Egyptian people, we must take stock of what is working, acknowledge that much more needs to be done, and rededicate ourselves to ensuring that Egypt’s streets, schools, and homes are free from violence for all.
This blog was written by Salma Abou Hussein, a Project Coordinator at the Population Council, Cairo Office, where she works on female genital mutilation/cutting research as well as higher education policies with a focus on accessibility and equal opportunities. Salma was a fellow in the Professional Fellows Program, funded by the US Department of State, and was placed for a month-long fellowship at ICRW, where she worked research and advocacy teams on gender, health and rights issues. She received a Master’s degree in Social Development Practice from University College London and holds a Bachelor’s degree in Mass Communication from the American University in Cairo.