By Hajer Naili
Egypt has a new law against sex harassment that was flagrantly flouted days later in Tahrir Square. Yet, the topic will likely be unmentionable. “Talking about it is seen as offensive,” says a safety activist in Cairo.
Credit: Mosa’ab Elshamy on Flickr, under Creative Commons
NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)–This year, during the Muslim spiritual month of Ramadan, Egyptian men have a new law to consider.
In early June, the country’s outgoing interim President Adly Mansour issued a decree that criminalized sex harassment and made it punishable by up to five years in jail and fines ranging from $400 to $7,000. And the country’s newly elected president, Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi, has sent signals that men should take the law seriously.
But safety activists and scholars doubt that Egyptian men will see the holiday as a time to reflect on the new law or discuss a problem so endemic that U.N. researchers in 2013 found that over 99 percent of Egyptian women had experienced some form of sexual harassment.
That’s because sex harassment is so normal it isn’t even considered a subject that merits discussion, and during a religious holiday it would be particularly out of place.
“Talking about sexual harassment is somehow seen as offensive especially during the month of Ramadan, because this month is not a good time to talk (about it),” says Noora Flinkman, communication manager atHarassMap in Cairo. “The issue could be seen as an upsetting topic to be discussed, so it is avoided.”
HarassMap is a Cairo-based organization that formed in 2010 in response to the persistent problem of sexual harassment on the streets of Egypt. It uses interactive technology to map and report sexual assaults. Flinkman says it’s hard to know if street harassment is getting worse or better because it is still an understudied topic.
“It is hard to compare year by year as now sexual harassment is being reported more often, yet it doesn’t mean it happens more,” says Flinkman, who spoke via Skype.
Flinkman expects that this Ramadan, in line with others, street harassment will lighten during the day, but continue at night as soon as people break their fast.
Although there is no data on the trend of street harassment towards women during Ramadan, since 2006 several cases of sexual harassment have been reported during celebrations of Eid-el-Fitr that mark the end of the month of fast, reports the newspaper Al Akbar. “In downtown Cairo, large groups of adolescents and youths would charge at isolated women, all looking for intimate parts of their bodies to grope.”
Flinkman says street harassment worsens during holidays. “It has almost become sort of a sick tradition during Eid,” she says.
Election Celebration Assaults
Women’s eNews interviewed Flinkman a couple of days after incidents of collective sexual assault occurred in Cairo during mass celebrations marking the June 8 election of Sissi.
“The first assault took place in Tahrir Square by a number of young people who intercepted a 30-year-old lady accompanied by her daughter and raped her brutally,” the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, based in Cairo, said in a press statement condemning the attacks. “By the night, many harassers targeted some of the girls and ladies in the square by sexual assault and a girl was assaulted brutally. The perpetrators stripped her clothes and assaulted her by sharp objects, till her body bled, while information confirmed the occurrence of nine cases of full rape during the past few days.”
A video, blurry, showing the attack was posted online.
Coming just days after Mansour’s decree, the open flouting seemed to underscore skepticism about whether the law would do any good.
On June 11, as one of his first acts in office, Sissi paid a visit to one of the Tahrir Square victims of mass sexual assault and apologized to her, as well as to all Egyptian women subjected to sexual abuse. “I am coming here to tell you, and to tell every Egyptian woman, that I am sorry. I apologize to all of you. Don’t be upset,” he told the victim after he handed her a large bouquet of red roses.
He also vowed to implement tougher measures against the crime and shortly after his government announced it would form a committee of government officials and interfaith spiritual leaders–Muslim and Christian–to devise a strategy to combat the growing phenomenon of sexual harassment.
Mansour’s decree makes it illegal to accost people by “implying sexual or obscene gestures” in any manner, “including modern means of communication.”
Law Not ‘Much Help’
While Flinkman sees the law as a step forward, she says it is too vague to be of much help. “The notion of rape is not defined in this law. It doesn’t include rape with different instruments or anal rape. It just talks about a traditional form of rape, which is completely insufficient.”
Ahmed Kadry, a British-Egyptian who splits his time between London and Cairo, is a scholar on gender rights in Egypt. He says sexual harassment is so common now in Egypt that you see 8-year-old boys mimicking the behavior and sexually harassing much older women.
“These boys haven’t hit puberty yet. They don’t have a sexual need or anything like that. Yet it’s a common thing to see young boys sexually harassing full-grown women because they see it in that society; they have learnt it and they are repeating it,” he says.
Kadry says it will be hard to enforce the law unless police are trained to take sex harassment seriously and, at a very basic level, be able to even identify it. “Police officers themselves are often sexual harassers and if they are not sexual harassers, they themselves do not take sexual harassment very seriously.”
They need training, he adds, in what constitutes sexual harassment and what doesn’t.
“If someone says something verbally to a woman once is that sexual harassment? How many times does he have to say it? Who has to able to prove that it did or didn’t happen?”
Kadry says street harassment is usually lighter during Ramadan for both practical and spiritual reasons. The hot weather and long days of fasting keep Egyptians more indoors and the time that men are expected to spend in prayers keeps them from other activities, including harassment. “And women tend to be at home at night time during that month more than other times of the year,” he says.
The topic of street harassment or anything to do with women is unlikely to come up in mosques, Kadry says. “It is not something any sheikhs I can think of talk about. I cannot remember ever attending a khutba [Friday sermon] where any imam has even ever spoken of women to be honest. Maybe sometimes I’ll hear things like ‘respect your mother,’ but that’s it. Nothing like ‘respect your wife’ for example.”
Much of the problem of sex harassment is tied to the difficulties of the country’s young population in a sluggish economy with few job opportunities, says Kadry. About 60 percent of Egypt’s population is under the age of 30 and many young men are unemployed despite their diplomas.
“So often, sexual harassment has nothing to do with sex,” says Kadry. “A lot of it has to do with power. A lot has to do with frustration where many Egyptian men feel very frustrated and angry about a lot of things.”
The correlation between gender-based violence and unemployment goes beyond Egypt to other countries, including the United States.
In 2012, USA Today reported that a review by the Police Executive Research Forum found that 56 percent of the 700 responding agencies in the U.S. reported that the poor economy is driving an increase in domestic conflict, up from 40 percent of agencies in a similar survey in 2010.
Hajer Naili is a New York-based reporter for Women’s eNews. She has worked for several radio stations and publications in France and North Africa and specializes in Middle East and North Africa women in Islam.