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Despite the legal procedures and the condemning stance of the religious institutions, sexual harassment has long been a prevailing social phenomenon in Egypt.
Egyptian society seriously suffers from sexual harassment. It is hard to determine precisely when harassment first appeared in Egypt. However, the earliest mention of a man harassing a woman occurred in the Young Egypt Party’s newspaper published on the 29th of December 1908.
In that edition, an article made a comparison between men of Istanbul and their counterparts in Egypt. According to the article, men in Istanbul’s streets were “courteous,” while those of Egypt “harassed women excessively.”
Some describe the 1940s as the dawn of harassment. The phenomenon started with catcalls and verbal harassment. Weekly incidents and complaints became the norm.
The aforementioned article of the Young Egypt confirms that harassment is not a recent phenomenon of 30 years ago, as some media outlets claim. However, this phenomenon has become increasingly dangerous in the last couple of years.
According to a 2013 study issued by UN Women, 99.3% of Egyptian women reported that they were harassed in one form or another. The same study also showed that 82.6% of Egyptian women feel unsafe in the streets and on public transportation.
Law and Harassment
There are four main types of sexual harassment in the Egyptian law. First is physical harassment, which is unwanted physical contact, such as touching, contact or sexual assault.
Second is verbal harassment, which includes any kind of unwanted verbal sexual advances. Remarks about someone’s body or sexual acts are examples of this type of harassment.
Third is visual harassment, which includes every form of unwanted visible sexual advances. Examples include lusting, staring, or displaying sexually explicit material.
Fourth is online harassment, which includes any kind of unwanted sexual advances online. The list of examples includes sending sexually explicit messages or images and creating fake online profiles for sexual enticement.
Egyptian law punishes physical harassment with up to five years in prison and a fine of up to 100,000 EGP. The penalty for verbal harassment is a fine of up to 10,000 EGP, up to one year in prison, or both. The penalty is doubled if the victim is a minor and triple if the offender is a public servant.
However, enforcing these laws is complicated. Ahmed Saleh, a legal expert, told Fanack: “To prove the crime of sexual harassment in Egyptian law, the victim must provide evidence that the accused has made unwanted sexual attempts or comments that would offend any normal person.” He added: “The victim must also prove that she has suffered harm directly from the harassment. This is controversial because women tend to fear stigmatisation, which prevents them from filing a complaint. Furthermore, many of them do not trust that law will bring justice to them.”
Saleh points out another problem: the permissibility of reconciliation with the victim. In many cases, the offender signs a pledge not to commit the crime again and only pays a fine.
Fanack conducted a survey on Facebook about sexual harassment. A total of 100 women with an average age of 18 to 40 took part in the survey. The majority of respondents have been harassed at least once during their lifetime.
According to a respondent, the risk of harassment increases “in transportation, at home, on the street and at work.”
Most participants agreed they had been harassed in several ways. Examples include “verbal harassment and attempts to touch their bodies inappropriately at work and public transport.”
According to some respondents, Egypt witnesses tens or hundreds of sexual harassment crimes committed daily against women, girls, and children. These crimes occur without genuine attempts to prevent or even cover them up.
Home is no Haven
One respondent, who is a university student living in Cairo, confirmed to Fanack that her father had been harassing her for a year. “The first person to molest me was my biological father”, she said, “At first, he would strangely rub against my body, then suddenly open the bathroom door or watch me change.” When the respondent told her mother about it, she didn’t believe her and scolded her severely. “She did not lift a finger even when she saw him looking at me from the bathroom door,” the respondent said.
“Even my friends whom I tried to tell about what was happening didn’t believe me and accused me of being crazy,” the respondent continued, “This made me accept my first marriage proposal despite being only 19.”
Another respondent had a similar story but with her uncle. “He exploited my juvenility and innocence to relieve his frustration,” she said, “I was a seven-year-old girl, but when I grew up and learned about these things, I became spiteful and hated myself.”
Verbal harassment left a significant impact on many of the respondents. Psychologist Asma Tarek told Fanack: “Words can make a female depressed and scared for a long time. Every so often, it can push her to commit suicide, especially if no one believes her and helps her get through it.”
One respondent shared her recent verbal harassment incident: “A few days ago, three young men followed me and spewed words I had never heard before. I rushed home, scared. Those words are still haunting me.”
Another participant, who is an Alexandria-based pharmacist, had the same experience. However, the harasser was someone she knew very well. About that story, she said: “He was a friend. Everyone thought he was decent. However, he once used inappropriate words with me and repeated them whenever he saw me. He claimed he was flirting. At first, I was afraid no one would believe me. However, a mutual friend told me he was doing the same to her. We kicked him out of our group.”
Online harassment has become endemic. Harassers may go so far as to blackmail their victims by photoshopping them into explicit pictures. One participant said: “You rarely find a girl who has not experienced this type of harassment. Often, harassers send indecent images or pornographic clips to their victims. Occasionally, they use our profile pictures, put our faces on a naked woman’s body, and then threaten and blackmail us. Therefore, most girls do not publicly post their profile photos. They also avoid opening messages from non-friends.”
Terrifying Work Environment
Many respondents believe the Egyptian work environment is the most frightening and unsafe in the Arab world, if not the whole world. Some participants report being harassed by colleagues, the bus driver or their boss.
One respondent had a different story, especially since her father is the business owner. About her experience with harassers, she said: “I do not tell new employees I am the boss’s daughter. I ask everyone to keep it a secret. When I notice inappropriate behaviour, I counsel my father and fire the harasser immediately. So far, I have expelled 13 people.”
The Reality of Enforcing the Law
Most females surveyed agreed not to resort to the law when they are harassed. The first reason is the fear of scandal, especially because girls who report harassment to the police are stigmatised.
Several respondents distrust the law and those enforcing it. One respondent, who is a teacher living in Cairo, said: “I went to a police station to file a complaint against someone who harassed me. Ironically, the police officer himself harassed me. How can I trust a harasser to protect me from another harasser?”
The feminist movement in Egypt strongly tackles harassment. It launched large campaigns and raised women’s awareness of harassment and how to deal with it.
Ghada Jehad, an Egyptian feminist, emphasized the seriousness of sexual harassment, its widespread occurrence in Egypt, and the urgent need to address it. Jehad stated that, until 2005, harassment was not defined as a gender-based problem faced by Egyptian women. However, political activists and journalists were sexually harassed by paid assailants during what was known as ‘Black Wednesday.’ It was a turning point in shaping and internalising the definition within human rights circles. This incident also influenced movements and initiatives to combat harassment and violence against women. “Fear of shame, scandal, or murder have been preventing women from acting,” Jihad said.
Jehad believes the main problem lies in a society that stigmatises women and blames them. “Often, society is on the perpetrator’s side, refusing to punish him or acknowledge the act,” Gehad added.
Al-Azhar rejected any attempt to blame women for sexual harassment. According to it, such an attempt “expresses a misunderstanding of how harassment infringes on women’s privacy, freedom, and dignity.” Al-Azhar called for enforcing laws that criminalise harassment and raise awareness of the forms of harassment and its dangers.
Similarly, the Coptic Church in Egypt views harassment as “wrong behaviour and a serious moral deviation”. According to the church, it is “a sin, and God hates sin, but He is allowed to forgive if the sinner repents and turns from his sinful path and asks for forgiveness.”
However, some clerics still blame harassment on women. For example, Egyptian Sheikh Abdullah Rushdy says: “Harassment should not stop at the harasser and his crime, but we must address the causes. Treating explicit clothing as a cause. It violates both Sharia and traditions.”
Rushdy wrote in a Facebook post: “Whoever showed off her body in obscene clothes in front of young people full of desire and poverty-stricken is an accomplice.”