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New Egyptian anti-sexual harassment campaign challenges passive bystanders

A new campaign to combat sexual harassment in Egypt encourages bystanders to speak up when they see women being sexually harassed in public.

Egyptians have launched many campaigns in recent years to combat the sexual harassment that continues to plague Egyptian society. Some of these campaigns implore victims to speak up and report the incident, while other initiatives condemn the harassers. A recent awareness campaign launched by a team of three Egyptian women has adopted a new approach to fighting this social epidemic: bystander intervention.

With the help of a director, the women released a daring photo campaign titled "Your Silence Is Harassment," blowing the lid off the passive role of bystanders who do not intervene when a woman is sexually assaulted. The alluring sequence of photos depicts the daily struggle of Egyptian women on city streets, public transportation, markets and the workplace, blaming idle bystanders in the hope of stirring a sense of collective responsibility.

The project displays staged scenes of sexual harassment, as a silent bystander stands in the background, his mouth sealed by black tape. The victims featured in the photos include a woman wearing a headscarf and an unveiled girl to refute the claim that it's clothing that provokes sexual harassment. Through an interview with the campaign's founders, Al-Monitor was able to find out the details of this bold photo session that went viral within a few hours.

One of the brains behind the campaign, actress Nourhan Mohamed, is a graduate of the Higher Institute of Theatrical Arts. In collaboration with her colleagues, she decided to use acting as a way to combat social problems, with a special focus on women-related issues. "This is not our first campaign," she said. "Last year, we released a photo session that dealt with violence against women. Actually, this session was inspired by the story of our colleague who suffered from such violence. We were surprised that the campaign gained widespread admiration. This success prompted us to launch another campaign. After agreeing on the campaign's theme, namely sexual harassment, we started to think about the segment that should be addressed. Fully aware of the key role of bystanders in preventing sexual abuse, we decided to launch the recent campaign."

Mohamed said the main goal of the campaign is to spotlight the role of bystanders in preventing sexual harassment. Ideally, passive bystanders would become engaged bystanders. "Anyone who keeps silent and does not intervene in preventing sexual harassment is complicit and a partner in this crime," Mohamed said. "Imagine that this girl is your mother or sister — would you turn a blind eye? This unjustified silence allows for sexual harassment to proliferate. Please, stand up and take serious action!"

Mohamed said it was not difficult to recreate scenarios of sexual harassment for the camera since so many of her close friends have experienced such harassment. The campaign boldly sends out a message that clothing is not an excuse for sexual abuse.

"Almost every girl in Egypt has been exposed to harassment, whether verbal or physical, even if she dresses modestly. One of the photos shows a girl who is about to take off the headscarf after being harassed since in all cases she is blamed," Mohamed said, pointing out that after the campaign launched, she received messages from girls who wear a face veil, or niqab, who said they have been sexually harassed. "Since these photos were so real, the audience rapidly grasped our message. I know the photos are shocking. But this is the painful truth, and we aspire to correct the deep-rooted wrong notions," she said.

Mohamed experienced a multitude of feelings during the photo session. "Seriously, I was psychologically exhausted after finishing the photo session," she said. "I put myself in the victim's shoes to accurately reflect her silent suffering through my facial reactions. I plunged myself into the victim's feelings. I wanted to show how the victim feels broken and becomes victimized twice by the silence of bystanders."

Mohamed said that the women who launched the campaign have covered all expenses on their own. "We do not seek fame or fortune. We just want to change social norms and reform society. I deeply believe that art can change society since it is more accessible to the audience. Definitely, we are planning to launch more campaigns dealing with various social problems," she said.

With her belief that "a picture is worth a thousand words," Marwa Ragheb, the campaign's photographer, tried to capture images that condemned the whole of society for the spread of sexual harassment. "Each photo tells a story. I tended to take the photos from different angles in a way that provokes people's emotions. I chose certain angles that clearly display how the girl is being harassed amid the provocative silence of bystanders. We want to revive the sense of collective action instead of merely blaming women for wearing tight clothes. It is your minds that are narrow and tight. The reason for harassment is not my clothes, it is your silence," Ragheb said.

Ragheb said she was not afraid to take these daring photos since they reflect the current situation of society. "We have to be more realistic," she said. "Only very few people may intervene and positively act in potentially threatening situations. We do not want to distort the image of Egyptian people. Sure, I received some negative comments, but I insist on capturing the society's diseases with my camera, hoping to eliminate all forms of violence against women."

Not only females are interested in launching campaigns to fight sexual harassment. The photo session's director, Mohamed el-Hagrasy, helped create the captivating images. "Any director seeks to reflect society's problems with the sole aim of creating social change. Since women are part and parcel of society, any director, whether male or female, can perfectly tackle their problems. Art is not gender-based," Hagrasy said.

The director added that one's way of observing social problems is a key factor distinguishing one director from another. "I am a member of this society, and I can see how girls are suffering from sexual assault," Hagrasy said. "When I started to prepare the campaign's photos, I recalled all these situations [and] stories of my female colleagues and translated them into enacted scenes."

"Art can change society for the better. It is a long process, but we can do it," he said.

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