Speaking of Women's Rights: The more things change … Sexual harassment and assault know no borders.

Monday, June 24, 2013

The more things change … Sexual harassment and assault know no borders.

Legal Voice Legal & Legislative Counsel

I’m here in Cairo, Egypt, looking through my guidebook, which includes a short section of Arabic words and phrases.  Of course there’s “Yes / aiwa” and “Thank you / shokran.”  And after the sections on “Directions” and “Shopping,” there’s “Useful phrases.”  Not far after “I am hungry” and “What is your name?” is this: “Don’t touch me! / sibni le wadi!”

One of my interpreters, a young woman named Aya, was shocked and saddened to hear that.  She said wistfully, “You should have seen what Egypt used to be like, before the revolution.” While things weren’t necessarily entirely rosy then, either, it turns out knowing that phrase in today’s Egypt might well be solid, practical advice – particularly for a female traveler.

We are now two years after the 30-year reign of President Hosni Mubarak ended in 2011 after a mostly peaceful revolution.  Like all revolutions, Egypt’s brought high hopes for transformative, political change.  For one thing, the participants included people young and old, rich and poor, men and women, Muslim and Christian - and for a time, the country seemed to have transcended those many divides that can make collective action difficult.

Now, the country is again a-buzz and talking ‘bout a revolution.  June 30 will mark one year of Mohamed Morsi’s presidency, which remains a disappointment to many.  “Have you signed the petition?” activists ask one another, referring to a petition calling for early presidential elections (essentially, a vote of no confidence).  Mass protests are planned for June 30, and many are talking about their hopes that the people can force Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood party, to leave office, just as Mubarak did two years ago.

One thing that’s changed since the revolution for the worse – quite dramatically – is the incidence of sexual harassment, defined to include everything from dirty looks, repeated invitations to go out despite refusals, verbal harassment, unwanted touching, and rape.  An April 2013 report by the United Nations reported that 99.3% of Egyptian women had been subjected to sexual harassment. Over ninety-nine percent

That means that statistically, pretty much every woman in Egypt has been subjected to sexual harassment.  Indeed, in my group of visitors, several of us were subjected to unwanted touching by a young boy simply walking down a street (an example of yet another disturbing aspect of the already disturbing UN report, as many of the harassers are boys under age 18).

Indeed, 48.9% of respondents in the UN report said incidents had increased since the 2011 revolution.  Some allege that Morsi’s party, the Muslim Brotherhood, is paying thugs to target and attack women as part of its efforts to intimidate women from participating in protests, as well as to promote an extremist anti-women agenda.

To complicate matters, although there are laws prohibiting sexual harassment and sexual assault, since the revolution (in which police and their abuses were a particular target of the protests), there has been little enforcement because the government has been in such chaos.  And even before the revolution, reporting an incident of sexual harassment or even sexual assault to the police was a dicey proposition that was likely to result in victim-blaming at best, or at worst, other harm by police or the perpetrators.  

For example, we heard of one woman who was assaulted (thrown so violently that she broke a car window), and when she reported the crime, her assailants filed a claim of prostitution against her.  Ultimately, the charge against her was dismissed – but only because her family agreed to pay for damage to the assailant’s car.

It’s ironic that women, who have been active participants in the Egyptian revolution aimed at gaining all citizens political rights, have in some ways suffered even more post-revolution.  In addition to increased widespread public sexual harassment, after the revolution, the army infamously used violence to intimidate women protestors – for example, by detaining them, assaulting and harassing them, and forcing women to go through intrusive body exams and “virginity tests” – so-called examinations by army personnel.

I admit that at first, upon hearing of these statistics and practices, I thought, “Oh, we in the U.S. are so much better off than Egypt.  We have changed the culture so that it is widely known what sexual harassment is, and that it is not to be tolerated – for example, through developments in employment law.  And we have (mostly) functioning governments and agencies to enforce the laws or to lobby for changes.”

But then I left my comfortable enlightened, feminist, progressive bubble, and thought of the still-widespread problem of unremedied campus sexual violence.  And of the sexual assault epidemic in the military.  And cases like the Steubenville rape of a drunk 16-year-old by football team members, who took and circulated photographs – and how even people who ought to know better (such as Serena Williams, recently) seemed to blame the victim in that case.

So here in post-revolution Egypt, it’s hard to know where to even start to combat sexual harassment, when not only are there the same underlying problems and misperceptions, such as victim-blaming, but there are so many other problems layered in as well.  The laws need enforcing, but there is no functioning or trustworthy enforcing agency; there’s a religious political party in power that doesn’t think women should participate much in society outside the home sphere; there’s widespread unemployment that leads to groups of angry young men with time on their hands; and so on.

The good news is that there are several groups in Egypt working actively to combat sexual harassment and assault.  One such group, HarassMap, is working, as one representative there told us, “not to solve individual cases or answer the question why do people do this, but to address the phenomenon of sexual harassment.”  The problem, according to HarassMap, is that there are no consequences for sexual harassment – not only from law enforcement, but from bystanders and others in society.  The group accepts reports of harassment through all means – online, calls, Facebook, Twitter, text – and records the time, place, and type of harassment on a map.  With this data and with a business outreach program, they are working to identify safe areas for women. They also have projects to educate about myths of sexual harassment (e.g., “If harassment is due to poverty, why do CEOs harass?” and “If harassment is due to women’s provocative clothing, why are veiled women harassed?” etc.).  Other HarassMap programs include crisis response to gang attacks on women, training volunteers to do outreach and education, and a nationwide campaign (donations accepted here) to change the perceptions associated with sexual harassment and create a positive association with standing up to harassment.

Another Egyptian project, Scandalize a Harasser, began when a woman was being harassed in traffic by another car’s occupant, and decided to create a Facebook page and post his picture.  The first night she posted it and went to sleep.  The next morning, over 5,000 had already “liked” her page and soon thousands more viewed and circulated it, until it morphed into a site where others can speak out about incidents of harassment.

These programs bear similarities to programs in the U.S. and elsewhere, such as the Green Dot program, which seeks to use mapping to identify safe places where positive actions to prevent and oppose sexual harassment have occurred, and Hollaback!, which started in New York as a project to support people who have been subjected to street harassment to speak out, and now operates in 22 countries.

All of these programs have one thread in common:  speaking out.  In Egypt, people learned from the 2011 revolution how very powerful speaking out can be.  Let’s hope that women’s voices and experiences will not be silenced, and that ultimately, whatever government takes root, that it will truly be transformative so that not only is there a functioning civil society, but that it ensures justice for all.

You say you want a revolution
Well you know
We all want to change the world …

(The Beatles, “Revolution”)