Egypt Independent

The Sexual Harassment File: A legal dilemma



Reporting an incident of sexual harassment is, in most cases, an embarrassment for the victim and a degrading experience for any Egyptian family. 

While filing a harassment case could be an important step in mitigating the problem and pressuring lawmakers to amend current laws – which don't fully address sexual harassment – victims will find it difficult to report the incident.

Catherine, an American woman living here, was sexually harassed in Heliopolis and chose to take the perpetrator to the police station to report the incident.

“The police released all of my personal information (phone number, address, passport number etc.) to the guy and his family,” explains Catherine. “I know this because the next day I received a phone call from the guy's fiance wanting to meet me.”
 
The following day, Catherine followed up by reporting the case to the district attorney's office and was later told by his family that her assaulter spent two nights in jail. She didn’t pursue prosecution any further because filing the suit alone proved to be such an ordeal.
 
Verbal harassment falls under the umbrella of Law 306/1937, which penalizes verbal abuse of a female. The law stipulates a jail sentence of up to a year and a fine between LE200 and LE1000.
 
Improper touching, or as referred to in Egyptian law, “indecent exposure of a female in public” (hatk erd), entails a sentence of seven to 15 years. Rape is the most severe sexual crime, and the death sentence is applied.
 
On 22 March, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces raised the penalties against thuggery and harassment. 
 
“Since the revolution, all harassment cases are sent to the criminal court, which entails a harsher sentence,” says Abdallah al-Mahdy, the head of Agouza prosecution services. According to Mahdy, imprisonment refers to a sentence of three years or more, while jail time fluctuates between a few days to a maximum of three years.
 
Sexual harassment levels have not changed since the revolution, he says, and incidents usually increase during the summer.
 
“The sick mentality that practices or enjoys harassment would not change because of a revolution or political reform,” Mahdy says.
 
To report a harassment incident, a victim should file a complaint at the nearest police station. If he or she faces resistance at the station, prosecution is the next step, he says.
 
"There are no loop holes in the judicial system, but the process is relatively long especially since a doctor’s opinion is needed in the case of rape for instance,” explains Mahdy.
 
But Magda Boutros of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal rights disagrees. 
 
“Legal revisions and amendments are what is needed for the sexual harassment issue in Egypt,” she says.  “The law of indecent exposure (hatk erd) of a female is only for public incidents – what about the cases that happen in private, at work, in schools and at a hospital? These are all loopholes that exist in our judicial system.”
 
Boutros says more articles need to be added for harassment against children and disabled people, and changes should be made to the process of filing a complaint.
 
"Some victims were abused at police stations while reporting a harassment incident," says Boutros, adding that harsher penalties are not the answer.
 
"The government was planning to raise sexual harassment penalties even before the revolution," she explains. Personal rights organizations and organizations against sexual violence do not advocate for harsher penalties or longer sentences, she says. 
 
In addition to problems with reporting, Boutros says victims often face discouragement like "Don't report this, you'll bring shame on yourself," or "Just thank God you weren't raped, let it go." She believes this entire mentality, which she calls a "backward heritage", needs to be abolished.
 
“Last but not least, there has to be a private room for harassment cases with a female police officer to make it less embarrassing for the victim,” says Boutros. “There have to be legal measures to protect the victim from the assaulter or his family during prosecution and trial."

Due to the nature of sexual crimes, the lack of witnesses can also be a problem because it pits the victim's testimony against the defendant's and the outcome is left "to the police officer's or the prosecutor's good judgment," Mahdy says.

In 2008, Sherif Gomaa was sentenced to three years in jail in a landmark sexual harassment case. Gomaa was convicted of assaulting and harassing Noha Roushdy, a young filmmaker, while driving slowly next to her in broad daylight. He was fined LE5000 in addition to the jail time – a sentence that was the first of its kind for such an offense and offered some hope of an Egypt with thorough, strictly enforced sexual harassment laws.