Noha was heading towards the metro station near her home in Maadi recently, when a stranger began following her and addressing her with abusive sexual comments. “I couldn’t find anything to threaten him except for the pin on my veil, so I just started to run away from him,” she said.
This incident was just one of the most egregious ones. Noha said she encounters sexual harassment on a daily basis. She prefers to take public transportation instead of cabs, she said, to avoid interactions with abusive drivers. Now she said she is looking for self-defence objects to carry in her bag.
Many Egyptian women have taken safety precautions to a new level, in a country with a sexual harassment rate upward to 99.3%, according to a 2013 United Nations report.
Yasmine, a student, says she has been carrying pepper spray in her purse for over a year now, “due to the increasing crime rate in Egypt, especially sexual harassment”. She said she encounters this on a daily basis on public transportation, in taxis, or walking in the street after dark.
Even though she has never used pepper spray against anyone before, she said: “I would never hesitate to use it against anyone who tries to touch me or hurt me whatsoever.”
Egypt’s interim cabinet amended the harassment law and included it in the Egyptian penal code in June. The new amendments escalated the penalties for any form of verbal or nonverbal sexual harassment or abuse in public or private areas, to at least six months imprisonment and a fine of between EGP 3,000 and EGP 5,000.
The amendments were triggered by a mass sexual assault on 8 June during celebrations in Tahrir Square for President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi’s inauguration. A video uploaded on YouTube, showing a stripped woman being sexually assaulted by a group of men, went viral on social media, prompting the government’s response.
The amendments also include stricter penalties for those who are found guilty of using their authority in the family, workplace or educational facilities to commit sexual harassment. They face a jail sentence of two to five years and pay a fine of EGP 20,000 to EGP 50,000.
“The new law brought about a notable increase in awareness about the sexual harassment issue and has encouraged people to report harassment incidents,” said Azza Kamel, the director of civil society initiative I Saw Harassment. “However, we still cannot affirm that the law can actually end sexual harassment in Egypt.”
In preparation for 25 November, the international day for the elimination of violence against women, international women’s rights group CREA launched an open forum in Cairo in collaboration with the Egyptian Center for Development Services (CDS).
The forum was held on Sunday and is part of the New Voices/New Leaders project, currently underway in four African and three Asian countries. The project’s proposed aim is to strengthen social dialogue and advocacy on women rights.
“There is no synergy between civil societies institutions, all their efforts are scattered away,” said CDS Senior specialist Kazem Hemeida. “We are trying to figure out how all those people can work together.”
The forum witnessed turnout from a wide array of NGO workers and social advocates in the anti-sexual harassment field. It included panel discussions on the role of civil society on countering sexual harassment and ad-hoc committees where the participants discussed potential communication methods and applicable activities for collaboration.
Safaa Habib, a member of the National Council for Women (NCW) and one of the panel speakers, said: “We are currently setting up a strategy to counter violence against women.”
According to Habib, civil society should enhance collaborations with media outlets, governmental authorities, and organisations working outside Cairo, in order to reach a wider segment of the Egyptian public.
Habib added that due to many sexual harassment incidents remaining unreported and victims often giving up on legal procedures, there is no clear indication on the numbers of sexual harassment cases in Egypt. Talking to Egyptian women, though, it is evident that the phenomenon is pervasive.
The forum ended with a list of recommendations, which included involving both men and women on an equal level in efforts to spread awareness, making amendments to the educational curriculum, and enhancing the role of media in covering relevant issues.
Egypt’s media coverage of the issue remains problematic. When a group sexual harassment incident broke in Cairo University in March, Egyptian TV host Tamer Amin blamed the victim for wearing “provocative clothes” and described her as a “hooker”.
Monica Ibrahim, communications manager at the Harassmap initiative said: “We call on the media to portray harassment as a crime that is punishable by law, instead of a taboo or a sensational matter.”