Challenging law and practices, an inside of Egyptian activists’ fight against sexual harassment
(Initially published on Hoqook News Networks website on October14, 2012 ; the following article was edited on August 15, 2015, in view of clarity.)
Southern Egypt. In a village, a girl named Eman Mostafa was killed for having spit in the face of her harasser. Cairo. Lamya Lotfy, human rights activist and member of the New Women Foundation dragged a taxi driver to the nearest police station after his jeering attitude led them to fight…
Each week, another case of sexual harassment is to add to the list, directly contradicting those arguing the phenomenon is decreasing, challenging Arab spring revolutions’ efficiency on gender equality grounds. What does the Egyptian law say? How are activists fighting the phenomenon? Which steps were made to reduce sexual harassment?
New constitution redaction: a hope for the criminalization of harassment
In the Egyptian Penal Code, three articles roughly refer to sexual harassment.
Article 306 punishes “insulting” with a 100 EP fine (100 Egyptian pounds roughly equals $17), maximum with one month in prison. The motion “indecent behaviour” mentioned in article 278 can lead to punishments ranging from a fine to three years in prison. Finally, article 268 covers cases in which “any person who violates another with the use of force or threat, or attempts to do so, shall be punished with imprisonment”. Sentence for such an act goes from three to 15 years in jail.
Lately, activists defending women rights demonstrated to denounce discriminatory aspects in the draft constitution.
Article 68 – late article 36 – conditions equality between men and women to its compliance with “Islamic law”. Activists fear this terminology would allow legist to deprive women from their rights in near future. Also, they ask for the inclusion of a law clearly criminalizing sexual harassment in the upcoming constitution. If their first demand is at stake, the second doesn’t meet general approval.
As a response, National Council for Women chairwoman, Mervat al-Talawy, declared it developed an awareness campaign alongside with Al-Azhar the reknown Muslim authority in Egypt, the Coptic Orthodox Church, Egyptian civil society and concerned governmental agencies. For instance, Interior Minister Ahmed Gamal Al-Dine announced the intensification of security patrols in front of girls’ schools. Still, words have to be followed by concrete actions.
Raising awareness to change indulgent image of harassment in Egyptian society
Sexual harassment is not easily reduced, notably because most of women don’t report the experience they were victim of.
Walad El Balad (literally the Country’s Children), an association founded by Karim Mahrous, encourages women to report the incidents to officials. Reporting harassment requires a certain amount of courage, considering that it equals to both telling the story to policemen and overcoming social pressure.
Solution to harassment would thus lie in awareness campaigns.
Dina Farid stresses resolution of harassment doesn’t require punishment, but not all activists share her opinion. A founding member of “Banat Masr Khat A7mar” association (“Egypt’s Girls are a Red Line”), Dina wants to raise awareness on the issue. By speaking with people in the streets, using the most appropriate religious references or Egyptian values such as “nobility” (“shahama” in Egyptian dialect), Dina hopes to destroy the problem’s roots. Currently, the association works on developing different ads to be aired on Egyptian TV.
At a more official level, the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights (ECWR) began “Making Our Streets Safer for Everyone” in October 2005. The center believes the phenomenon must be fought in its representation as a “fashionable” behavior among young boys. For this reason, men’s involvement in fighting sexual harassment is crucial.
Spring of promising citizen initiatives: Harassmap and The uprising of women in the Arab world
Initiatives blossomed up in 2011, to fight for gender equality. Notable examples include “Harassmap” website and “The uprising of women in the arab world” Facebook page.
A simple SMS is enough to indicate the spot of the harassment to Harassmap website, who reports it on a map. As for “The uprising of women in the arab world”, it aims at “[the implementation of] the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the CEDAW », the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. In fact, most Arab states signed the convention but added some reservations on several articles, especially on matters related to marriage and nationality of children.
“I am with the uprising of women in the Arab world because I am worth more than the appearance of my body, I want people to see me as someone who has a mind and not only a body. We’ve had enough,” posted Kinana from Jordan on “Uprising of women” page.
Recently, the group launched a successful campaign calling for people to post pictures of themselves with statements in support of the movement “I am with the uprising of women in the Arab world maybe then the Arabian man will rise against his patriarchy and become a real man,” wrote Talal Khoury from Lebanon. “The uprising of women in the Arab world” almost reached 35,000 “likes” lately, showing the interest Arabic women rights subject concentrates.
Still, the road to women and men equality in rights and representation is long. In countries based on Islamic jurisdiction, men are favored when it comes to divorce, child custody and inheritance; women are still underrepresented in politics.
“Sexual harassment” is often used as a euphemism to downplay the real facts.
As the blogger Laura Bates wisely underlined, let’s start about calling a spade a spade. Because words have a performative power, let’s use the words of “sexual assault” and “rape” when they are the most suitable to define the real situation.