Nicola’s Got Nerve: Is Safety Really Coming for Egypt’s Women?

This post, by Nicola Briggs, is part of a series of posts that we call Nicola’s Got Nerve. You may remember Nicola from this incident caught on camera which was viewed by more than 1.5 million people and which sparked outrage from all corners of the globe, bringing street harassment to the forefront of women’s rights issues. We admire’s Nicola’s ability to turn a traumatic event into focused action through writing and activism, and we think you will too.

Egypt, a country in which street harassment of urban women is now so frequent as to become almost normal, seems to finally be making a commitment to stamping it out. Published in Ahram Online, the article which headlined plans for this new policy had a disturbing photo of three young men chasing after a woman crossing the street, one of them clearly grabbing her backside. The look of distress on her face is obvious, as she extends a hand behind her to try and remove his, which has already made intimate contact with her body. I personally shuddered when I saw this, as any woman who’s experienced this would do. The look of glee on their faces and their obvious youth relative to that of the victim might bring to mind the phrase, “boys will be boys,” giving them a free pass; in fact, until recently, the Arabic term muakssa was used to imply that this behavior was merely “playful.” Now however, understanding of the dangerous, sexually violative nature of it has changed, and the word tahharush, meaning “harassment” is now used. In recognition of just how prevalent this problem is for women in Egyptian society, Prime Minister Hisham Qandil, his Ministry of Interior, and the National Council for Women are in the process of drafting a new law which seeks harsher penalties for those who perpetuate the epidemic of sexual violence against women.

Street harassment has been on the rise according to women’s rights organizations there, especially in the wake of the revolution, which simultaneously reduced police presence and increased spontaneous civil unrest. To put the scope of this problem into perspective, as far back as 2008 the Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights found that a whopping 83 percent of Egyptian women have been subjected to sexual harassment, and that a full 98 percent of foreign women have also experienced this. I’ve been to Egypt three times, the last time in 2008, and from these statistics can only surmise that it was sheer luck that I personally never encountered this treatment, but I did witness other women being the target of degrading remarks. To address what has become a social pandemic, this past July protesters against sexual violence filled Tahrir Square, where women have suffered repeated verbal harassment and assault as they have tried to join in demonstrations against widespread corruption. This action/reaction of women becoming more politically assertive and then being “punished” with sexual violation for coming into such a symbolic public space speaks volumes, not only degrading women in the moment, but sending the dangerous and intimidating message that women’s voices are not welcome in the political process. As a response, performers and artists in Cairo and other major Egyptian cities organized open mic sessions and exhibits throughout the summer, giving women a safe space in which to share their experiences and fight back against the silencing of their voices. Understandably, some of the victims have only felt comfortable speaking with their backs to the audiences which had come to hear their stories ~ underscoring the shame and stigma which still hangs on victims of sexual violence in Egypt and everywhere around the world.

Prime Minister Qandil has finally acknowledged the dangerousness of these acts to Egyptian society, saying that they are “dealing with sexual harassment as a disastrous phenomenon.” His government has taken a long time to come to this realization– far too long after a widely publicized incident in which several women were stripped naked by a street mob during celebrations for Eid-al-Fitr all the way back in 2006. At least now Mr. Qandil’s government recognizes that educating young men about harassment will be the key to changing the tacit acceptance of it, and has charged the Ministry of Education to distribute informative materials and create anti-harassment messages to be distributed in the media. While these recent efforts are laudable, Qandil and his peers are latecomers to publicizing this problem with social media, since photographs and videos posted to YouTube and Facebook have already been surfacing for years, after a slew of sexual harassment incidents during religious holidays like Eid. Other new methods being deployed against harassment will be surveillance cameras looking out onto streets and squares in Cairo, which should be an effective deterrent.

But there’s major caveat to becoming too hopeful about all these new measures: there are already three articles in Egyptian criminal law which would seem to offer stiff penalties for harassers, such as thirty days of jail time, a hefty fine for verbal harassment, three years of imprisonment for indecent exposure and stalking, and fifteen years in prison for sexual assault, which does include incidents of public groping. So while I want to remain positive in the face of these new steps the government is taking towards the protection of women in public spaces, I’d like to see more done in terms of enforcement of laws already on the books, and most importantly, rooting out of the social acceptance of this behavior. In the meantime, I applaud the brave Egyptian women and their male allies who refuse to be human targets any longer, and insist upon their voices being counted. Let’s see if their nation will really back them up this time.

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