Anti-harassment campaign stirs controversy in Egypt

Egyptians are outraged by alleged anti-harassment campaign "Mat3brhash," whose promoters hold women partially responsible for inviting harassment.

al-monitor Women chant slogans as they gather to protest sexual harassment in front of the opera house in Cairo, June 14, 2014. Photo by REUTERS/Asmaa Waguih.

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women in society, women and islam, social movements, social media, sexual harassment, facebook, egypt protests

Aug 24, 2015

CAIRO — A Facebook campaign called “Mat3brhash” (“Don’t Give Her Attention”) stirred controversy July 19, when it attacked Egypt’s women with harsh words such as “She’s not worth it, it’s not like she’s Angelina Jolie,” angering women and men alike.

Many women found this campaign insulting and worried it could lead to a rise in harassment, while men feared it could affect their efforts to fight harassment. Al-Monitor conducted interviews with an array of Egyptians on the topic. The campaign’s members denied accusations of inciting harassment, arguing that their posts are an invitation for both sides to respect one another and for men to resist harassing women.

The page was created in 2011 by three young activists — Mohammed al-Naggar, Sameh Shawky and Hesham Sayed. It was dormant for a time and re-activated in 2014. It has garnered 151,953 likes as of the time of this writing. Naggar told Al-Monitor that the campaign became most popular in July 2015, after its members took to the streets to fight harassment.

When first created, the organizers published this description on the Facebook page: “Girls make too much effort to look good so young men would intercept or harass them. But this time, they will be ignored by the young men who have decided to regain their dignity and not feel guilty about harassing girls.” The campaign seems to point to a social trend blaming girls for being harassed.

Some young men have called for reporting the campaign’s page, but it is still up. Naggar addressed these users, saying, “If you defend personal freedom, why would you attack our ideas?” The organizers did, however, change the description on Aug. 16 to focus on protecting girls from harassment.

Naggar explained that the campaign’s name has attracted attention. “This campaign is different. [Other] anti-harassment campaigns only dealt with women being attacked, but we protect both sides. It is neither right for men to look down on women, nor is it right for women to see [all] men as harassers. The campaign promotes the idea of women respecting men and the customs of our conservative society,” he noted.

Naggar said that the campaign became popular after they took to the streets and exposed a number of cases of harassment. “The hatred some expressed toward this campaign [gave us publicity] and thus a chance for others to learn about us,” he said.

Naggar said he rejects all excuses for harassment. At the same time, however, he disapproves of girls wearing revealing clothes, especially in public places, out of respect for social customs. He noted that this was his group’s first experience in activism, and he and the others had not participated in awareness and anti-harassment campaigns previously.

“We met with Col. Manal Loutfi, head of the Department to Follow-up Violent Crimes Against Women in the Ministry of Interior, who lectured us about how we could benefit from previous experiences to fight harassment,” he noted.

“We are carrying on with the steps to make [this campaign] an official one, which entails having an official headquarters and a registration number. We tried communicating with other anti-harassment campaigns, asking for help and coordination, but they turned us down,” he added.

One the biggest challenges they face, Naggar said, is “Certain young men actually call us traitors and accuse us of being affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood.”

Ghadir Ahmad, a freelance researcher in women and gender studies and the founder of the Facebook page “Thawrat al-Banat” (Girls’ Revolution), told Al-Monitor, “This campaign has received broad acclaim in Egyptian society, which believes harassment is okay and actually justifies it.”

She said she regrets that “The Ministry of Interior, and the Department to Follow-up Violent Crimes Against Women in particular, did not take any escalatory measures against the campaign,” adding, “The campaign should be held accountable before the law for libel and incitement of violence. It is trying to look as if it is fighting harassment, but it is actually justifying it.”

She described the campaign as a “cyber-violence crime with obvious fundamentalist speech,” and said, “The promotion of other [values], such as the niqab, indicates that the fundamentalist movements still exist in different ways.”

On the extent of Mat3brhash’s impact on young Egyptians involved in anti-harassment efforts, Shadi Hussein, a member of “al-Taharrosh bi al-Moutaharresh“ (“Harassing the Harasser”), told Al-Monitor, “It might open the door to more extremist and radical campaigns.”

Hussein questioned the campaign’s popularity, saying, “Most people who liked the page are attacking it. It is better to have a campaign page for only those who reject harassment, so we could know their exact number and the extent of their impact, instead of having different random groups [on one page].”

On the reasons that led to the emergence of such campaigns, Fouad al-Saeed, a researcher with the National Center for Social and Criminological Research, told Al-Monitor, “There are several reasons. The first is that the public feels that the January 25 Revolution failed to bring about social changes by imposing values on youths and adults of all social classes. The second reason is that a large segment of the youth feels a sense of injustice in holding men alone responsible for harassment, especially since they are unable to get married in light of the hard living conditions. The third reason is that some official apparatuses support such campaigns to distract society from more important issues,” a reference to the delayed parliamentary elections, the rising prices of basic commodities and social injustice.

“According to the campaign, admiring a girl on the street in Egypt is more or less similar to some patterns of harassment. Increasing sanctions against harassment is not enough, as it is a systemic problem that needs long-term programs, and solving other social problems is also needed, such as the issue of large families living in one room in rural areas and the absence of representatives from the government and the police in entire regions,” Saeed added.

Harassment has been on the rise in Egypt, with 99.3% of women subjected to either verbal or physical sexual harassment in 2015. There is talk about finding new means to confront harassment, and some are looking for new ways to face it, including means of deterring harassers. However, others — like Mat3brhash — merely try to get media attention. The group’s impact remains limited in comparison to the great efforts that have been made by Egyptian youth over the past years to confront harassment.

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