BY EMILY MAY
What would a world without street harassment look like? It’s easy to describe what it would not be but trying to imagine how the world would change in the absence of harassment, groping, public masturbation, assault? Much harder. That is unless you live in Egypt.
“I have lived the dream,” said Abdo Abu El Ela, Programme Director, Al Shehab Foundation for Comprehensive Development at the UN Safe Cities conference this past week in Cairo, Egypt. He continued (translated from Arabic), “While the police were absent for those 18 days, Egyptians organized to protect the streets. Women and men worked together hand in hand – women protected the streets in the morning, men in the afternoons and evenings.” Reports show that over 20% of the protestors were women.
In one story, told by Laila Risgallah, Founder and President of the “Not Guilty” project, a man who was working alongside a young woman turned to her and said, “you know if it were any other situation I would have said different words, but I am not now because we are living for a cause.”
As Americans know well – these 18 days without harassment didn’t last long. On February 11th journalist Lara Logan was brutally attacked by a mob of over 200 men for 30-40 minutes. Activists argue it was the mob mentality that made a world without harassment possible, and that it was that same mob mentality that then turned led to Logan’s assault.
Studies show that 83% of women in Egypt have experienced harassment, 98% of foreign visitors have experienced it (I can asset to that), and 62% of men in Egypt admit to harassing women (ECWR, 2008). Over 52,000 cases of harassment were reported to the police last year, but with only 10% of cases reported, it is estimated that over a half million incidences occurred.
But it wasn’t always this way. Older Egyptians recount stories of the 60s and 70s, when women were free to walk down the streets in mini-skirts without fear of harassment. On the rare occasion that harassment did occur, men would chase down the harasser and shave his head to publically shame him, according to Rebecca Chao, co-founder of Harassmap.
Harassmap is an initiative to map street harassment in Egypt using a powerful cocktail of SMS texting and on-the-ground community organizing. Since launch in December (just one month before the revolution), they have recruited over 400 volunteers who do direct outreach to groups of men on the street, asking them to stand up for people experiencing harassment. The group has already received over 500 reports of harassment, and Hollaback! is working with them to pilot the SMS texting campaign in NYC and (funding depending) in Israel and Mumbai. Harassmap is only one of the inspirational interventions happening in Egypt right now, as a number of activists work to shift the gears of time and shift the culture that has made gender-based violence in public space normalized here.
The film 678 brought mainstream attention to the issue of harassment – and had Egyptians cheering in the theaters. In one screening in Egypt, the directors reported that men laughed at the harassment scenes in the beginning of the film, but by the end of the film they were completely silent and even moved aside to let the women exit the theater first. In a panel I attended in Cairo, the filmmakers announced that they are committed to showing the film for free around the world. They are particularly interested in showing the film in public space – and we’re working on a partnership with them to show the film in the 24 cities in which we work.
On the heels of 678’s success come a new project is on the horizon called “Not Guilty.” The project’s goal is to highlight how sexual violence is not the fault of the victim (a common myth, well, everywhere), and twenty-three episodes have already been filmed. The episodes will be paired to a multi-pronged strategy that includes media, schoolbooks, training and education, and counseling to bring attention to sexual violence in Egypt.
We’re rooting for you, Egypt. You haven’t just imagined a world without street harassment; you’ve lived it. Your history reminds us that street harassment is part of a culture that makes gender-based violence OK, and that this culture can change; and your activism is lighting the path for the rest of the world.