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Egyptian Women Fight Incessant Sexual Harassment

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The Arab Spring changed Egypt’s government from a monolithic dictatorship to a ruthless Islamist theocracy to military-appointed caretakers in the course of two short years.  But one aspect of Egyptian life not affected by the tremendous changes the society has undergone is the treatment of women.

If anything, revolution has made it worse to be a woman in Egypt, as recognized by a recent research study published by Reuters which rated Egypt as the worst country in the Arab world in which to be a woman.

Beyond the significant drop of representation in government affairs, Egypt is a country where sexual harassment is rampant and constant.  It’s a country where, according to a recent UN report, more than 99 percent of the hundreds of women surveyed in Egypt report that they have experienced some form of sexual harassment – at work, at home or on the street, ranging from verbal assaults to rape.

But it’s also a country where women refuse to be silent and accept the place designated for them by society. In recent months, including during every holiday (when harassment of women on the streets is particularly intolerable), protests in defiance of sexual harassment have sprung up all over Egypt.

“The idea is to revolt against this model imposed on Egyptian women by society since the '70s where everything outside of it is considered a crime that we have to pay for," said Marwa Radwan, coordinator of "Tomorrow", a movement organized to empower Egyptian women.

A Facebook group called, Uprising of Women in the Arab World," shows the following photo of an Egyptian woman protesting against the harassment:

 

This month, “Tomorrow” organized a demonstration in the Suez where tens of women rode bicycles through the city streets. The “protesters” were also joined by men who rode in solidarity with the women for the right to be able to live their daily lives without fear.

Similar successful demonstrations have been held in Cairo, Alexandria and Port Said.

Egypt’s English-language website of its popular newspaper Ahram reports that Radwan pointed out that “sexual harassment and verbal and psychological attacks are the society’s way of punishing women and teaching them to take caution with every move they make.”

Last October, during the first day of the “Eid al-Adha” festival, an initiative was launched in Alexandria dubbed “Harass the Harasser,” in which male volunteers in green vests attempted to stop the sexual harassment of women on the streets during the holiday. Volunteers were present in the city’s busiest streets and parks, hoping not only to affect their immediate goal of protecting the women but to bring pressure on the government to fulfill its mandate to protect all of its citizens.

An anti-harassment campaign called “I Witnessed Harassment” was also launched in Cairo during the “Eid El-Fitr” festival last August. Male volunteers attempted to educate passersby about harassment and intervene when they saw it happening.  Witnesses reported instances ranging from verbal assault to mob sexual attacks with perpetrators caught as young as eight to 10 years old.

Public Radio International’s American reporter Julia Simon lived in Cairo for two years. Not a day passed, she says, when she wasn’t harassed.

"It's incessant. That's why it has such a big impact. Walking down the street, you feel stressed out all the time, you can't relax," said Simon, who says that harassment happens to all women –young or old, native or foreign, religious or secular. "If you have two X chromosomes, you're going to get harassed. You could be any age. You could have dark hair, you could have blond hair, you could be wearing a hijab. It doesn't matter," Simon added.

Activists are also pushing for a new law against sexual harassment as proposed by National Council for Women in Egypt. The draft legislation calls for a minimum one-year jail term and/or a minimum fine of 10,000 Egyptian pounds (close to $1,500) if convicted on charges of sexual harassment.

At present, there are no laws against sexual harassment in Egypt, but three different sections of the penal code have been applied in specific cases in the country in the past.

During demonstrations marking the second anniversary of the 2011 revolution last January, 19 cases of sexual assault were reported in Tahrir Square alone, with seven so severe that the women required intensive medical intervention.  

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Meira Svirsky

Meira Svirsky is the editor of ClarionProject.org