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Egyptian women take to social media to expose harassers

With Egyptian police turning a blind eye to incidents of sexual harassment, women are taking the initiative to expose sexual harassers online.
Girls walk past members of the riot police standing guard near a protest against sexual harassment in front of the opera house in Cairo June 14, 2014, after a woman was sexually assaulted by a mob during the June 8 celebrations marking the new president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's inauguration in Tahrir square. Egypt has asked YouTube to remove a video showing the naked woman with injuries being dragged through the square after being sexually assaulted during the celebrations. Authorities have arrested seven men

Egyptian women have been using a number of hashtags — among them #Idon’tFeelSafeOnTheStreet, #AntiHarassment and #ExposeHarasser — on social networking sites to speak up about the daily sexual harassment they experience. These campaigns are part of an effort to expose harassers and break the silence surrounding their crimes, which are haunting women in Egypt. Women have tweeted myriad incidents along with advocating the courage to expose and confront harassers.

Nancy Atieh, 20, published a post on Facebook Jan. 12 in an attempt to expose a man in his 50s who regularly takes the bus from a station downtown, during which time he molests females. She took and posted a picture of him to warn her colleagues who transit the same station. "Photographing harassers and exposing them is the best way to confront them,” she wrote.

Haitham Tabi, an Egyptian journalist, called on women to tweet their concerns using the hashtag #Idon’tFeelSafeOnTheStreet, after a number of reports he wrote on the public harassment of women. “Let people know that your concerns about walking on the streets are real and not exaggerated,” he told Al-Monitor of his encouragement to women. Tabi also said, “Calling on girls to talk about their suffering was a way to challenge those who are in denial about widespread sexual harassment.”

He said people should be careful since the situation has degenerated, stressing, “Women are greatly threatened in Egypt.” Tabi emphasized the need for the state to protect women and make them feel safe. “The state, which is fighting terrorism, has to protect girls on the streets,” he said.

On Dec. 8, a 19-year-old woman jumped into the Nile from the Qasr al-Nil bridge and drowned in a bid to escape a harasser who had been following her. No passersby intervened to protect her. Eyewitnesses said that the offender threatened to throw nitric acid on her.

Former interim President Adly Mansour issued a decree June 6, 2014, amending some provisions of the penal code to deal with sexual harassment. Days later, on June 10, a woman suffered severe burns after she was sexually abused in Tahrir Square during the inauguration of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

The Egyptian penal code includes three articles relating to sexual harassment. They stipulate the issuance of sanctions for crimes committed by force or threat or involving obscene acts toward women. In such instances, harassers face six months to five years in prison, in addition to a fine of up to 50,000 Egyptian pounds ($6,991).

No law in Egypt, however, addresses sexual harassment as a social problem, and the punishments do not suit the level of physical, sexual or verbal abuse. Moreover, the laws do not clearly state implementation mechanisms or compel the state to provide security for women.

Egyptian official and security institutions have stressed through the media that they have taken action to address the phenomenon of sexual harassment against women, including creating departments in the police force to combat it. Despite this, many women have complained of the ill-treatment they received at police stations when they tried to lodge complaints against harassers.

Amani Abboud, 26, told Al-Monitor, “I was verbally and physically abused by a man about 50 years of age in a public transport vehicle in the city center and in front of a police station.” She said, “Judging by the traffic in the street, I thought I could expose the harasser, so I tried to scream and pull him toward the police station. To my surprise, the police refused to issue a citation against him.” Abboud stated, “The officer told me that a citation would be of no benefit to me and that it was better for me to go home without causing problems.”

Amani later tried to lodge her complaint with human rights organizations in Egypt. “I have given up on being granted my right to police protection,” she said.

Fathi Farid, coordinator of the I Saw Harassment initiative, told Al-Monitor, “The laws in Egypt have failed to deter sexual harassment against women.” According to him, “The law that is supposed to prohibit sexual harassment should be amended. The amendments should include a clear definition of what an anti-harassment law is as well as protect witnesses and informants from media defamation.”

Not many people have high hopes of being able to rely on the Egyptian police to fight sexual harassment in the streets. “We cannot trust the anti-harassment division in the regular police when the person in charge of this department believes that harassment is only triggered by revealing female attire,” Farid said.

A Dec. 26 report by I Saw Harassment on a case of sexual harassment 100 days into Sisi's term pointed to the involvement of some police officers and administrators in violations against women. At the time, the most recent such incident had occurred Dec. 21 and involved the rape of a university student in a police car.

Said Sadiq, a professor of political sociology, told Al-Monitor, “The lack of the security and judiciary performing their role and the weakness of the concept of respect for personal freedoms are both behind the exacerbation of the problem in Egyptian society.”

Sadiq described sexual harassment, an act of violence against women, as a “complicated issue” in Egypt. “No solutions can be found as long as the official institutions do not realize the seriousness of the issue,” he said.

Campaigns and initiatives are being launched to address sexual harassment in Egypt, and training sessions are being held for women to protect themselves on the streets. Many women are also daring to speak publicly, on social networking sites, about what they have experienced. The political establishment must act to protect women from the daily violence they are being exposed to since the state's attention does not appear to be focused on fighting harassment.

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