Harassment illegal? Egypt's women say word hasn't reached the street

Egypt has a new anti-sexual harassment law, but with 99 percent of women reporting they've been harassed, public life still remains out of reach.

Maya Alleruzzo/AP/File
This combination of two photos taken shows graffiti of a woman with the words 'no harassment,' in Arabic, taken on June 23, 2012 (l.) and the addition by another artist, on Nov. 6, 2012 of a stick figure touching her backside, under a bridge in the upscale Zamalek neighborhood in Cairo.

The news that a Cairo judge recently sentenced a man to a year in prison for sexual harassment was welcomed by those who have fought for such offenses to be recognized as a crime. But daily insecurities and lax law enforcement leave the deck still stacked against Egyptian women.

The prosecution, coming just weeks before the introduction of a new anti-sexual harassment law, could act as a deterrent and encourage women to trust a legal apparatus that they rarely turn to for help. Egypt’s new constitution, which passed with 98 percent of the vote in January, affirms gender equality and the state’s commitment to "the protection of women against all forms of violence." 

Some individuals are making strides. In December, leftist physician Mona Mina became the first female head of Egypt's influential doctors' syndicate, a group traditionally dominated by male, conservative Islamists. Three months later, Hala Shukrallah became the first Egyptian woman to lead a political party, taking the helm of the Cairo-based liberal Dostour party. 

But women’s rights activists across the county say gender-based harassment and violence keep participation in public life largely out of reach. According to a recent United Nations survey, 99.3 percent of women surveyed in Egypt said they had been harassed. 

Although sexual harassment and violence are debated at a level unseen before the 2011 uprising, the discussions are narrow, usually focused on attacks on female protesters in Tahrir Square. Politicians and commentators are quick to blame the victims. 

In Upper Egypt, insecurity is compounded by male-dominated tribal and community structures. Women find even mere participation in public life largely off limits. Many say that they would not consider taking on public roles, fearful of censure from a community which considers such actions inappropriate.

“Political work is very difficult for women from tribes, women who do not even have the freedom to vote for who they want," says Basma Abdulla, a young development worker from the southern governorate of Qena. She plans to run in upcoming local elections. 

Kate Nevens, head of London-based NGO Saferworld’s Middle East and North Africa program, says resolution of these issues is a precursor to increasing female representation in the political arena.

“Security issues were providing such massive barriers at the really basic level that saying women should simply run for parliament and local council is way off the mark,” Ms. Nevens says.

In Aswan, a city nestled on the banks of the Nile in southern Egypt, insults to a local woman’s honor sparked two days of intense ethnic violence last month. With no police on the streets, most women felt unable to leave their homes.

By the time a truce was struck – after negotiations that did not include any women – 26 people were dead, and several women on both sides had been kidnapped. Some fled the scene in body bags, helped by ambulance workers.

“On both sides, women were just used to negotiate and humiliate,” says Basma Othman, a founding member of the city’s first feminist initiative, Ganoubia Hora. 

Ms. Othman and her sister Ayat, both members of the Nubian community, founded Ganoubia Hora last year in response to their community’s muted reaction to a local woman being beaten by police at a demonstration.

“There are communities and safety circles which welcome us… but we also meet with direct aggression. Society here often prefers to keep on what it's doing, and fall back on old ways,” Ayat says. She is reluctant to say more about the difficulties her group has faced.

But the spasms of violence in Aswan also underlined the need to keep going. In an angry statement issued in the wake of the fighting, Ganoubia Hora said, “Women are forever and always the weakest point in every conflict arising in Egypt generally and in Upper Egypt particularly."

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