Egyptian Women Speak Against the Unspoken

Grassroots initiatives to combat sexual harassment in Egypt challenge state and society to face an issue silently yet significantly affecting the lives of countless women.

Women chant slogans as they gather to protest against sexual harassment in front of the opera house in Cairo, June 14, 2014. Reuters/Asmaa Waguih 

In the summer of 2020, the issue of sexual harassment garnered some long-overdue attention in Egypt thanks to the persistent efforts of grassroots initiatives and individuals who called out harassers and normalized the discourse to allow hundreds of women to come forward with their experiences. 

Nadeen Ashraf, a student at the American University in Cairo (AUC), created the Instagram account Assault Police, which was instrumental in exposing a sexual predator, leading to his detention and imminent trial in a case which received significant media attention. Shortly after, Assault Police uncovered a 2014 rape case which led to the extradition of three suspects from Lebanon, with the case still pending.

Since its creation, Assault Police has served as a platform for victims of harassment to share their stories, which are not few by any measure. Ashraf compares the number of people sharing their stories as “a waterfall of women speaking out, not believing that this didn’t happen to them alone”. What these women began to understand, as Ashraf puts it, is that “the problem isn’t in me”. What began in the summer of 2020 has been described as the beginning of a feminist revolution by various media outlets, and for good reason.

This rally in the fight against sexual harassment is radically changing and challenging the prevalent public narrative in Egypt on such issues. For example, Al-Azhar, Egypt’s chief religious authority, issued a statement condemning sexual harassment and encouraging victims to speak up. At the same time, the Minister of Religious Endowments suspended a preacher for blaming sexual violence on the way women dress. 

In a bid to understand this revitalized fight against sexual violence, AUC hosted its debut SpeakUp Dialogue entitled “How can we combat harassment and why should we care?,” inviting important figures combating against harassment to talk about their efforts and experiences. 

State Response

Since the rise of this Egyptian anti-harassment movement, the state quickly responded by removing some key roadblocks which deterred the reporting and trial of harassers. In July, laws were amended in the Egyptian criminal code to protect the identity of victims of rape, harrasment, and assault. This step was key in encouraging victims to come forward, as Christine Arab, the UN Women Egypt Country Representative, stressed. Arab said it was an important step toward defending survivors because “one of the hardest things to do as a survivor of sexual violence is come forward” and that “only 1 percent of survivors come forward in Egypt”. 

Passing this law follows a pattern exhibited in recent years by the government, which looks to increasingly involve women in important aspects of society, such as governance and lawmaking. Egypt’s cabinet currently has eight female ministers out of thirty-three, the most so far. Other efforts were made by the National Council for Women to encourage women’s participation in local elections, and a constitutional amendment was passed by parliament last June, reserving a quota of 25 percent as parliamentary seats for women. However, there is still a very long way to go in terms of meaningful representation and the empowerment of women across all folds of society. Deterring sexual harassment is crucial to this goal.

Maya Morsi, president of the National Council for Women, said that updating laws related to harassment and raising the level of awareness have reversed the status quo completely. However, it is important to note that there have been many initiatives in the past to combat harassment. For example, Hoda Elsadda, a professor of English and Comparative Literature, established an anti-sexual harassment unit at Cairo University in 2014, the first of its kind in Egypt. Since then, dozens of universities across Egypt have established similar units. 

Rabab El Mahdi, associate professor and chair of the AUC Political Science Department, cites the initiatives called El-Share’ Lana (“The Street is Ours”), a 2013 protest against harassment, and Harrasmap, a 2010 platform to report harassment, as examples of important past initiatives. El Mahdy states that the “culmination of civil society initiatives is of the utmost important” and that “civil society and state institutions must complement each other,” referring to the importance of the state in fighting harassment through the application of its laws

Harassment as an Impediment to Public Participation

Mohammad Naciri, Regional Director of UN Women for Asia and the Pacific, and former Regional Director of UN Woman in the Arab States, told the Cairo Review that sexual harassment is “an impairment to women’s full and equal participation in society. It can deter women from running for public office, from being in public, and from taking public transport, which in turn can prevent them from seeking employment.” Naciri believes that there has to be a combination of top down and bottom up laws and policies—and Egypt passed these— but they also have to be implemented and enacted, which is where a bottom up approach, including awareness-raising and changing social norms come into play. “We need a whole-of-society approach to address this, from government to people to police, judiciary, etc.”

The holistic approach cannot exclude social media and cyberspace. He noted that women are more prone to facing harassment online. “Women running for public office, for example, experience much more hate speech and misogyny directed toward them than their male counterparts.” Naciri believes that our response to online harassment must mirror our offline approach, stating that “it is much more difficult to track down harassment in cyberspace, much happens anonymously, behind computer screens—but here, too, we have to be ready to call this out, to delete messages, and to ensure that we support women who experience harassment”.

Where to Go from Here

Ashraf believes that the way forward lies with the young generations. She stresses the need for qualified teachers able to openly teach young students about topics such as consent, personal space, and harassment. This approach, Ashraf added, must be infused into every social institution.

To shift the blame from the victim to the perpetrator, as Naciri puts it, requires time. “We have to change the norm from harassment being okay, to not being socially acceptable, and that requires everyone to take part in this, including the media, public figures, etc. We cannot trivialize harassment, nor use it as an opportunity for jokes and so on. There cannot be any victim blaming.”

Then the first step must be to find an answer to a critical question raised by Arab about why, after all the legal measures, training, and capacity building undertaken, does society still gain from blaming the victim rather than believing that they’ve raised individuals that can perpetuate that level of violence?

Omar Auf is assistant editor at the Cairo Review of Global Affairs. 

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