I’ve never been to Egypt, but I have been fascinated by it ever since the sixth grade when we spent a substantial part of social studies learning about ancient Egypt. Today it’s more than the pyramids and the Nile which capture my interest. Each day I scan the news to see if there are any new developments regarding street harassment activism and legislation there.
The Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights (ECWR) has made street harassment, or public sexual harassment, as they refer to it, one of their central activism issues. As we talk about equal rights on an international level for International Women’s Day, I can think of no group I’d rather highlight than them.
Women never will achieve equal rights until they can access public places free of harassment and assault. Because of the tireless work of the ECWR, the Egyptian Parliament is considering new legislation that would ban sexual harassment at work, in public, online, and through mobile devices. This is groundbreaking legislation that will help change the cultural acceptance of harassment, deter the behavior, and give women recourse. I am eagerly waiting to see if it will pass. If/when it does, I hope it can serve as a model for the U.S. and other countries to follow.
How did the ECWR get to this point?
Because of the sharp increase in the number of women sharing their experiences with public harassment and a lack of societal awareness of the problem, in 2005 the ECWR launched an anti-sexual harassment campaign called “Making Our Street Safer for Everyone.” Volunteers are the driving force of ECWR’s campaign. They meet monthly to discuss ideas and plan initiatives.
Initially, ECWR conducted informal, voluntary surveys of over 2,000 people. An overwhelming number of female respondents said sexual harassment was part of their daily life. Eighty-three percent of women said men had sexually harassed them and 62 percent of men admitted to perpetrating sexual harassment. Fewer than two percent of women reported going to the police for help. ECWR published their results in a 2008 report “Clouds in Egypt’s Sky, Sexual Harassment: from Verbal Harassment to Rape.” The report garnered lots of attention in Egypt and around the world. Next, ECWR organized several forms of public awareness, including:
- Distributing flyers with information like definitions of harassment, existing laws, how to file a police report, and how to campaign on the issue.
- Creating public service radio announcements about sexual harassment.
- Staging an anti-sexual harassment demonstration with 250 women and men on the steps of the Press Syndicate.
- Holding press conferences and public awareness days at cultural centers, institutions, and hotels. Events have featured presentations and discussions on Egypt’s sexual harassment laws, women’s image in the media, the sociological and psychological impacts of harassment, group discussions on how to address the problem, self defense workshops, and live music and relevant films.
ECWR has been reaching out to youth, too, by training teachers and social workers to sensitize them to the issues of public sexual harassment and helping them know how to discuss the issues with their students. They recently released an animated five minute educational film and workbook for teachers to further help facilitate school discussions, including through painting and coloring. The resources teach children to trust others but to be careful and aware of inappropriate behavior and to learn the difference between appropriate and inappropriate language.
In addition to their (hopefully) pending success of working with Parliament to pass new legislation against sexual harassment, the efforts of ECWR has led to other types of activism and initiatives:
- Since 2008, the number of girls and young women taking self defense classes has shot up.
- Women began using an audio blogging station, Banat wa Bas, to share their harassment stories and vent their frustrations.
- Kelmetna, a magazine for youth, launched a campaign called “Respect yourself: Egypt still has real men” with weekly seminars, self defense classes, and street concerts to raise awareness. There are over 53,000 members of their Facebook group.
- In late 2008, the Egyptian government issued public service announcements warning that public harassment is bad for tourism.
- Over the summer of 2009, the Egyptian government distributed a book on sexual harassment to mosques nationwide.
- In December 2009, leaders from 17 countries near Egypt met in Cairo for a conference to discuss public sexual harassment.
Anyone who is working to fight street harassment can learn a lot from the ECWR and their efforts. I will continue to watch their initiatives and outcomes. I hope that because of activists like them, one day women will have equality in public places in every country, and consequently, equality with men in general.