Two boys jumped in the women-only metro carriage, spat in the face of a passenger and yelled offensive phrases before quickly jumping off. Neither were scolded nor punished for what they did.
Harassment is an on-going social malaise in Cairo. The seminal Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights (ECWR) 2008 report on the issue showed that 83 percent of Egyptian women and 98 percent of foreign women have been exposed to sexual harassment, half of them on a daily basis.
While the media hype around the issue of sexual harassment might have slowed down, new initiatives working to combat the problem are still emerging. HarassMap is one such initiative, born to allow women that are harassed on the streets of Egypt to report the abuse by SMS. Volunteers will record every message location creating a map showing the “hot-spots” of sexual harassment.
The initiative aims at alleviating the sense of impotence and frustration women feel after being harassed. Places where assaults are more common will also be identified by the initiative, which will allow women to plan their journeys more efficiently. In the meantime, campaigners will focus their activities to raise public awareness precisely in these hot spots.
HarassMap will also share its data with the police. Rebecca Chiao, of HarassMap.org, says that the police don’t have the data to make a systematic effort of tackling the problem, and this is a major drawback.
The mapping of sexual harassment incidents takes place through a technical geo-tagging mechanism that provides for a visual representation of the geographic spread and frequency of the phenomenon.
But besides data, the will to act is equally important, according to campaigners. Many women have reportedly said that they have being ridiculed when trying to report incidents, with officers attributing responsibility for the assaults to the victims themselves.
Women are seen as highly sexualized beings, needing strong masculine men to tame their spirits, said former sociology professor at the American University in Cairo Nadia Ilahi. This male-centric view is accompanied by a general sense of non-responsibility of the offenders, she adds.
A campaign poster shows an unwrapped lollipop being invaded by flies, while next to it a covered one is left alone. “It makes me angry because it is so well designed, but it gives the complete wrong message,” says Chiao.
In another instance, a well known religious broadcaster, compared women on the streets to uncovered meat lying on the ground. He said that it is not the fault of the cats if they go eat the meat, the meat should not have been there in the first place.
The findings of the ECWR study suggests that although it is popular perception that uncovered women should be more vulnerable to sexual harassment, in reality this is not the case. Any women, regardless of how she is dressed, has the same chance of being harassed; the mere fact that she is walking the public realm unaccompanied seems to be sufficient.
“It is a matter of women's access to public space; how is a woman walking unaccompanied in a public street perceived? In the west she would have a high degree of invisibility, not in Egypt, where gender roles are differently defined,” suggests Ilahi. This may suggest that sexual attraction plays a lesser part in harassment while it needs to be placed in a wider gender struggle.
The problem presses the need for practical legal prosecution of the harassers on one hand, and self-assertion of women’s right to walk in public spaces un-molested.
Legal prosecution seems to be an increasingly viable option. In 2008, Noha Roushdy, a filmmaker, managed to snap a three-year prison sentence for a bus driver who harassed her in the street, in what became a landmark ruling and a precedent for judicial actions against harassers.
Reclaiming the public space is also an option, with tactics around the world offering inspiration. In India, so-called Pink Gangs are taking to the streets in numbers, literally reclaiming them for the safe usage of women. Armed with light bamboo sticks, they claim to have strong dissuasive powers on potential harassers.