Do We Know How to Handle Sexual Harassment?

March 23, 2011

Photo Credit: Amr Nabil/AP/File

This male ally post is cross-posted from Rebel with a Cause Bog.

News came out yesterday about a draft law that has been proposed by the government issuing harsher punishments for those who commit sexual harassment and rape crimes, up to the point of death sentence.

The new law tackles various points: adding telephone and the internet to different media through which harassment can occur; and giving more conditions when rape convicts get harsher punishments such as reconsidering victim’s age and cases where the victim has been raped by more than one convicts.

This is a reminder of a similar law which just passed a few days ago for combating thuggery. The news of that law was alarming to me as well as many other human rights activists. The move towards stricter law for thuggery was met with a lot of criticism. Just before this particular law was passed, the military forces cracked down on Tahrir protesters, many were detained and tortured. These protesters were claimed to be thugs which puts us at a dilemma of how to determine who’s a thug and who’s a protester, especially because we are at a time where military courts (where people do not enjoy their full rights of fair trial) have been handling these cases.

Back to sexual harassment, it is quite obvious there’s a problem with the way we’re dealing with this issue. The phenomenon which began surfacing rather recently in Egypt is rampant. But is issuing stricter punishments the solution for this multifaceted problem? Here’s why I don’t think so:

I find the process highly questionable. The ministerial council pushes for more punishments for sexual harassment and the supreme military council is happy to enforce these, because this is the language the military best understands. In normal circumstances the ministerial council can propose draft laws and submit them to the parliament to discuss them further. Either way there need to be more public debate about it.

Drafting laws without counseling civil society bodies or human rights experts is pretty concerning. These laws have to be compatible with human rights law, and there need to be clear definition and good consensus on what sexual assault entails.

I am more concerned with how to enforce this law, rather than the punishments themselves. There are big question marks on how to get these cases reported? We have a culture of silence about these crimes. It’s hard for people to report them because a huge stigma can be placed upon them. Most women who face sexual harassment or even rape never report it to the police or even to their families because their lives can be devastated.

We have this culture of intimidating criminals by increasing punishments. I don’t really believe it works. To be able to overcome a societal problem, we need to handle its underlying causes. All those handling those crimes need to be sensitized about it and fully aware of its implications. By engaging different people in the process of ending the phenomenon of sexual harassment, real achievement can happen on that front.

Ahmed Awadalla, Cairo, Egypt

This post is part of the weekly blog series by male allies. We need men involved in the work to end the social acceptability of street harassment and to stop the practice, period. If you’d like to contribute to this weekly series, please contact me.

“If you ever walk alone to your car without thinking someone might attack you, this isn’t your day.”

March 8, 2011

International Women’s Day (the 100th anniversary, no less) is a bonanza for events, articles, and activities on women’s rights! I love it.  What a day and it’s not even 10 a.m.

At 7 a.m. today, it was chilly with a beautiful clear sky when I joined three of my AAUW coworkers and a dozen other early-risers to participate in the Washington, DC, contingency of Women for Women International‘s Meet Me on the Bridge event. While we enjoyed bagels and coffee, we gathered at the base of the Lincoln Memorial to talk about women’s rights. Then we dodged bicyclist commuters to cross the Arlington Memorial Bridge. It was inspiring to be gathered so early and to know we were part of thousands of people all over the world crossing bridges to commemorate women’s rights.

Now that I’m online, my Facebook and Twitter feeds are flooded with International Women’s  Day events, articles, and campaigns. It’s fantastic! Here are a few that stood out to me:

And here are a few of my favorite tweets!

What are you doing for International Women’s Day?

Covered from head to toe, groping continues

January 4, 2010

Women in Cairo. Image via the Boston Globe

I’m sick of hearing people blame women for street harassment by saying things like, “if only women covered up it wouldn’t happen.”

In many countries where women ARE completely covered, harassment occurs. 90 percent of women surveyed in 2009 in Yemen had been street harassed and most women wear a veil. Egyptian woman Hadeel al Shalchi wrote a great opinion piece for The National about the insane amount of street harassment in Egypt, and the following section discusses the issue of being covered and still being harassed:

“The onus in our society has largely lain on women to prevent sexual harassment. If a girl doesn’t cover her hair or wear very conservative clothing, then she’s obviously asking for it and wants the harassment, the prevailing attitude seemed to be.

As a result, more women began to cover up. The hijab and niqab became common in Egypt, not purely for religious reasons but also because women wanted to avoid the unpleasantness of being glared at by the opposite sex.

But when the harassment continued, Egyptian women knew there was something seriously wrong.

Covered from head to toe in black, they were still being groped, propositioned and annoyed. What more could they do?

Three years ago, an amateur video of women in hijabs being attacked in downtown Cairo during a holiday event was made public. Shocked Egyptians were brought face to face with the ugly nature of harassment. Some mobile-phone images showed men tugging at young girls’ clothes. Others showed the girls being physically attacked.

This was real evidence of a very real problem. Those who had ignored what every woman knew could deny it no longer.

Women’s groups were emboldened to launch anti-harassment campaigns, teaching women that the problem was not their fault and encouraging them to persist in bringing complaints – even small ones – to the police. They were also urged to take self-defence classes and to use what they were taught on men who abused them in the street. …

In Egypt, sexual harassment will, most probably, continue to exist for a long time to come. Attitudes that allow such behaviour appear culturally ingrained. But increasingly women are waking up to this reality and beginning to reject it.

Women here are saying it loudly: enough to being groped on the subway, to being undressed with a look, to being followed to work. This must stop!

Amen. Enough!! Street harassment MUST END and it will not end by requiring women to be completely hidden from view. Instead, men must stop harassing women and there must be cultural respect for women. What can you do? Here are a few ideas, feel free to share more in the comments.

Egyptian women fight street harassment with karate

September 22, 2009

“What should be a leisurely stroll through Cairo’s streets, for some women has become more like a gauntlet run… Campaigners say the male-dominated society leaves women feeling vulnerable and unprotected by traditional forces like the police.

Al Jazeera’s Amr el-Khaky met one group in Cairo, Egypt’s capital, who are taking the fight into their own hands: they are taking lessons in karate.” – AlJazeeraEnglish

I’ve written about street harassment in Egypt a lot across this past year. To add to the list — here’s an interesting video called “Egyptian women fight harassment” on the AlJazeerEnglish youtube channel that’s definitely worth a look. Many related videos show up after the end of the video clip if you’re interested.



Hear from Egyptian Activists

April 23, 2009

BBC posted a new audio report today about the rise of activism in Egypt around the widespread problem of sexual harassment in public. A few weeks ago BBC reported on the increase in women taking self defense classes in Egypt to deal with their harassers. This audio clip includes interviews with some of those women.

There is an interview with one of the women at the Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights about the survey they conducted last year. This woman said that too often Egyptian women are blamed for the harassment they receive because they were supposedly dressing provocatively, and that there’s a perception that if women didn’t dress in a certain way there wouldn’t be harassment. Well, in their survey (where 83 percent of women reported experiencing harassment and 2/3rds men said they engage in harassment), more than 70 percent of the women said they were wearing a veil when they were harassed. She said that was an important finding to show how pointless it is to blame victims for harassment crimes – women are harassed no matter what they wear!

Also interviewed in the clip were individuals involved in the “Respect yourself: Egypt still has real men” campaign in a Cairo neighborhood of Mohandiseen,  sponsored by Kelmetna, a magazine for young people. It targets Egyptian men and encourages Egyptian women to speak out, too. When members of the group asked men what they would do if they saw a woman being harassed by men, most reported that they would join in harassing her, especially if she was not dressed conservatively (!!).  A young man interviewed said he thinks that since people can’t marry until they’re older due to the economy, men are taking out their sexual frustration on women in the street, causing the rise is street harassment. The group holds rallies at universities and canvasses the streets, reminding taxi drivers and food vendors to uphold Egypt’s tradition of hospitality. On Facebook, the campaign has over 53,000 members.

I also found the following about the group:

“As part of the campaign, Kelmetna magazine hosts weekly seminars and discussions to raise awareness about the problem. It also offers self-defence classes for women so they can fight off harassers. In addition to seminars, the group members and volunteers, who are all aged between 14 and 24, take their work to the streets, talking to people about sexual harassment. One of their main goals when they approach people is to convince them to refrain from all types of sexual harassment as well as to speak out when they see it happening. The campaign also involves street concerts to raise awareness.”

Fantastic work!

(thanks to frequent reader Beckie for this story tip)

Don’t Women Lose Too?

April 14, 2009

anti-harcellement-banniere1As discussed before, a survey conducted by the Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights last year found that 83 percent of Egyptian women had been street harassed and about 98 percent of foreign women reported this experience while in Egypt.

In a French newspaper The Observers, Julie Marquet, a French graduate student in history who has backpacked across dozens of European, Asian, and South American countries wrote about her experiences in Cairo. Here is an excerpt:

“I travelled to Egypt with a girlfriend of mine for two weeks in the summer of 2003. We were both 19. It’s my worst travel memory ever: Egypt is not a place you can travel to individually, especially not for two young girls!

Everywhere we went there was some hand groping us, in the street, in buses or trains… They weren’t even shy about it: they grabbed our butts, sometimes even went under our shirts! This happened even if we were careful to wear long-sleeved shirts and pants, even when it was 40°C out! We were told by Franco-Egyptian friends that women weren’t supposed to be too exuberant in public, not to laugh, not to talk loudly, not be noticeable in any way. We tried to be as discreet and invisible as possible, but that didn’t change anything.  If we lashed out angrily at them it didn’t help at all: they would just laugh and never took us seriously.”

Traveling has so many benefits, including the chance to expand one’s horizon and understanding of the human race and world, and it’s a shame women can’t have the same freedom of mobility to go to new places (or old/familiar places for that matter) as men.

Egypt is addressing the high rate of street harassment of female foreigners with a new ad, which The Observers included in their article. The video clip, “shows a typical scène of a vendor harassing a European visitor in a market. At the end, a man’s voice says: ‘If you harass visitors, you’re not the only one who loses. The whole country has to lose.'”

Hmmm. Don’t the women who are harassed lose too, if not significantly more than the men who do the harassing? Like Julie, they have lost the right to be in public without being harassed or fearing harassment even if they try to be invisible…

Egyptian Women Blog

March 22, 2009
Banat wa Bas is the first audio blogging station for girls, photo from

Banat wa Bas is the first audio blogging station for girls, photo from

Another post about Egypt!  This time about a women-only audio blogging station where women can talk about street harassment. Via Al Arabiya News Channel:

“A women-only audio blogging station has become one of Egypt’s most popular censorship-free forums for women intent on tackling taboo issues of gender inequality and street harassment…

Launched nine months ago by Amani Tunsi, 25-year-old computer science graduate, the blog offers young Egyptian women public space to tell their stories, share pictures and vent about daily frustrations without risking their identity.

It also offers a show called Mosh Kol al-Teir (Not all the Birds) that probes the different harassment methods and tricks guys use to pick up girls.

Bloggers have been at the forefront of the movement against sexual harassment, pioneering coverage of sexual aggression against women and leading campaigns like Kulna Laila (We are all Laila) to raise awareness and create solidarity among women bloggers.”

Ah, here is another example of the power of the Internet to help women share their stories and work for their rights.  Use your Internet access to share your street harassment stories on this blog &  raise awareness of the problem globally. Submit to: stopstreetharassmentATyahooDOTcom.