Sexual harassment victims should be encouraged to contact police, says NGO head

Saturday, November 19th, 2011
A young woman, conservatively dressed and veiled, was momentarily paralyzed in disbelief when a high school boy groped her derriere as he walked by her.

"I then turned to find him walking away laughing and glancing back at me. I simply exploded; I screamed and gave chase," she said.

Her experience with sexual harassment is just one example of what happens to millions of women in Egypt.

The victim of sexual harassment or the harasser can generally be any gender; but in Egypt, sexual harassment is almost exclusively conducted by men against women.

"Sexual harassment means, any unwanted work against the female desire whether verbal or physical or even uncomfortable looking at the body of the female," said Dr. Magda Adly, the director of the El Nadim Centre for the Rehabilitation of the Victims of Violence.

According to the Harassmap, an online initiative to combat such violence through SMS alerts, there are 10 categories of sexual harassment in Egypt including touching, stalking or following, phone calls, facial expressions and rape or sexual Assault.

"Women sexually harassed have the right to report the attack at the police station. The police transfer the case to the prosecution for further investigation. Then the case is put on trial," said General Nabil Gad, professor of criminal investigation at the Police Academy.

"Harassers can be imprisoned for six months or more depending on the degree of their crime," General Gad added.

However, for Adly sexual harassment is a violent crime using sex just as a tool. "The perpetrators of sexual crime attack all women whatever they [are] dressed [in], young girls and sometimes babies. It is [a] violent crime like beating and killing."

Regardless of their dressing style, age or company on the street, almost all women are potential victims of sexual harassment. Nevertheless very few victims report sexual harassment to the authorities.

"The number of cases [filed] yearly by people sexually harassed is not reflective of the reality because many Egyptians consider this act a scandal and they don't have the courage to take this step," said Hadier El-Mahdi, a senior at Cairo University's Law School.

With very few cases reported to the police, harassers end up escaping prosecution and punishment thereby contributing to a continued rise in sexual harassment incidents.

"Absence of punishment, hiding the crime from the victims' side for fearing of social blame, absence of state institutes that can give support to female victims of sexual violence are main reasons for the widespread of this behavior in Egypt," said Adly.

Efforts to fight sexual harassment have significantly increased since video of two women being groped by dozens of men during Eid 2006 first emerged online.

The January 25 Revolution has also allowed greater freedom for people to speak against this specter.

A number of campaigns - promoted by social media networks, such as Twitter and Facebook -, launched by NGOs like the El Nadim Center and projects such as Harassmap are playing a crucial role in raising awareness of sexual harassment.

Many AUCians participated in the June 20 online campaign on Twitter to end sexual harassment.

"I was harassed a number of times and still get harassed obviously so I took part in it. I tweeted saying I object to such behavior and that nowadays I don't feel safe and I always carry pepper spray with me," said Lojain Ibrahim, a Mass Communication junior.

"All Egyptians, especially women and human rights activists, should take part in the fight against sexual harassment. Raising awareness and launching continuous campaigns against violence against women (VAW) of all forms in and outside the family is essential," said Adly.

Adly suggests that women should be encouraged to follow legal recourse against perpetrators of sexual violence. She says such actions as well as establishing more counseling centers in support of women, and changing the gender stereotypes in the media and the education system will go a long way to combatting sexual harassment in Egypt.

Giving proper sexual education in Egypt is also essential in ending sexual violence.

Adly says most young girls get exposed to sexual violence from a family member whom they know and the family trusts. Hence, sexual education will raise girls' knowledge about body rights and decrease the potential abuse they are susceptible to.