A woman walks past a mural depicting a woman with eye patches near Tahrir Square in Cairo December 5, 2011. REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh
LONDON (TrustLaw)–Despite an increasing feeling of empowerment experienced by many Egyptian women during and after the revolution, they continue to be sexually harassed and abused by men in public on a daily basis, as recent coverage of events in Cairo—from “virginity tests” conducted by the military to male assaults on female protesters—illustrated.
It is a problem that long predates the Arab Spring. In 2008, a survey by the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights (ECWR) found that a staggering 83% of Egyptian women and 98% of foreign women were exposed to sexual harassment in Egypt.
The survey also concluded that 62.5% of Egyptian men actually admitted to sexually harassing women and many of them blame the victims. Furthermore, many women don’t realize that they are even being abused.
“Egypt is a male-dominated society and men see it as their right to verbally abuse women, grope them,” said Shahira Amin, a former Egyptian state TV anchor who currently freelances for CNN. “Women are ashamed to speak out and we’ve been brought up to think it is okay.”
Attitudes towards women have been changing slowly, with increased media attention and visibility in public life. But with conservative Islamists likely to win the current elections and a deep-rooted cultural bias against women, women question whether the energy that came out of the revolution will be strong enough to create lasting change, according to Amin.
“The momentum they started is irreversible,” said Amin, referring to women’s role in the revolution. “Young girls are taking charge; they feel a stake in their country.”
However, women’s newfound voice in society does not seem to reflect an improvement in their safety.
“Daily life in Egypt is filled with harassment,” said Amin, who has reported widely on the problem. “Young, old, attractive, plain, you face it.”
Daily News Egypt journalist Safaa Abdoun agrees.
“Some women consider some forms of sexual harassment as ‘normal behavior’; men being men or boys being boys,” she said.
The issue recently received international attention after the brutal assault by a mob of men on CBS reporter and Washington correspondent Lara Logan in Tahrir Sqaure in February shocked the world. More recently, U.S.-based Egyptian freelance journalist Mona Eltahawy was groped and harassed by security forces during her detainment in the protests leading up to the elections.
Worldwide disgust at these events and an increased focus on the issue by the Egyptian media has raised awareness of the problem.
It is talked about more openly in Egypt that ever before thanks to successful films like “Cairo 678”, which chronicles the sexual abuse suffered by women of all socio-economic groups in Cairo.
“I walked out of the cinema feeling so empowered, smoking my cigarette, daring people to approach me,” said Amin of the award-winning film.
There are now tools like HarassMap, created by Rebecca Chiao and Engy Ghozlan, to draw attention to the issue as well as protect women from harassment. HarassMap is an interactive online map in which women anonymously report where they were harassed and can even classify the type of assault. The site aggregates reports and visually shows the hot spots for sexual harassment.
The results of the 2008 ECWR survey also influenced the drafting of a law against sexual harassment that sets the legal terms for what sexual harassment encompasses as well has criminalizing the act.
“If a woman knows that she is protected by the law, she will feel safe,” said Safaa Abdoun. “At the same time, you are talking about a major social problem, so the mindset of these men has to change in order for this problem to not exist.”
Noha Rushdy, a then 27-year-old filmmaker, was the first woman to act on this law in 2008, demanding police action after her assault, which led to the first criminal prosecution for sexual harassment in Egypt.
Abdoun describes this moment as “a turning point that got people and the media to talk about it.”
However, some believe the key may lie in addressing socio-economic issues facing the country.
Poverty, unemployment, and lack of equal opportunity are issues that may indirectly lead to sexual harassment, according to Said Sadek, professor of political science and sociology at the American University in Cairo.
“It’s mostly unemployed men,” he said. “Marriage is expensive, and this is often their only sexual outlet”.
Shahira Amin agreed.
“Because of frustration at the lack of progress [after the revolution], men are angrier and taking their anger out on women,” she said.
This was evident on International Women’s Day in Cairo on 8 March 2011. Women who participated in a peaceful protest for equal rights were attacked by mobs of angry men. They were intimidated and humiliated as the men shouted at them and ripped up their signs.
“Their view is that women shouldn’t compete for jobs, they don’t want them to have an equal role in public life,” Amin said of these men.
An important symbolic step forward may be Bothaina Kamel’s candidacy in the presidential elections, which has brought a lot of attention to women’s rights in Egypt. However, the consensus is that the celebrity broadcaster, the only female candidate, does not stand a serious chance of winning just yet.
“Egypt needs more time before society is ready for a female president,” said Sadek. “Not now, not yet; society is not developed enough.”
However, Kamel’s role in the elections has perhaps already served its purpose, according to Amin.
“Bothaina Kamel shattered the glass ceiling,” she said. “She knows that she won’t win, but voices are now being heard and I think that was her motive.”
Though there is hope that the current elections will bring about positive change for the Egyptian people, the prospect of Islamists winning the elections may reduce leadership possibilities for women and may lead to the institution of Sharia law.
Despite this possibility, Amin is optimistic about women’s rights in Egypt.
“The energy is incredible and they want to be politically involved,” she said. Women have found their voice and it’s our revolution too; we are fighting back.”