For example, Hiba* was harassed on the street. Despite her legal knowledge, and her attempts to enforce her legal rights, the police refused to press charges against her harasser because other people on the street at the time denied the incident ever happened. Sexual harassment is so normalised in Egyptian society that many people feel it is just part of life, and should not be a criminal offence.
But sexual harassment is a crime under Egyptian law. Whether “physical, verbal, by direct insinuation, or through communication means”, it is a crime punishable by “imprisonment from six months to five years or payment of a fine of up to 50,000 Egyptian pounds” ($3,000).
However, despite the law, some people avoid accountability due to their social standing. For example, Faten could not press charges because her harasser was a cleric. In an interview with openDemocracy, she said: “I had no choice other than to keep silent. The Egyptian community will not tolerate talking about religious men. These harassers are above the law and not accountable. If the victim dares to say she was molested by a religious man, she will be crucified.”
Nonetheless, exposing perpetrators on social media is still a prominent strategy used by many women survivors and activists to fight sexual harassment.
Mona used to live in fear of being verbally harassed by men while going about her daily life, and never tried to confront the perpetrators. She said: “What’s happening today [on social media] makes it clear that talking about harassment and exposing harassers is the best way to deal with it.” She added that harassment was taken for granted, but social media awareness campaigns made her realise it should not be.
As for Asmaa, after repeated incidents on public transport, she went on social media to warn other girls. She said, “When I have to sit next to a man, I always put my bag in between us, to avoid any harassment attempt.”
Ruqaya Farid, a student and founder of A Feminist Voice, a support blog for women, explained:, “[Social media] plays a major role in confronting sexual harassment. People didn’t react against sexual harassers in the past as they do today.”
Safe spaces for survivors
Using social media to expose and shame perpetrators of sexual harassment has moved into other areas. These include online platforms and initiatives where women can express their fears and ask for support. For example, SpeakUp provides a safe space for survivors of sexual harassment to share their stories without being bullied, offers legal assistance to press charges against predators, and helps in finding much needed support from psychologists and therapists.
SpeakUp also aims to show that sexual harassers are not socially acceptable and to fight the tendency of victim blaming.
Jihad Hamdy, a female dentist and part of SpeakUp, says that publishing survivors’ stories plays a major role in discovering more survivors and encouraging them to take legal action. She added that SpeakUp also raises awareness on different types of harassment and how to avoid them.
She pointed out that people tend to believe that the sexual harasser is an unstoppable monster. But in most cases, they are just normal people from a variety of backgrounds: “They could be a husband, a father, a brother, a cousin, a sheikh, a priest or a close friend.”
She said: “We are here to support any person who faced any type of violence in his or her life, woman or man, old or young, religious or not. Sharing our pain is a part of the healing process. It is our pleasure to be part of this sacred journey.”
HarassMap is another volunteer-run initiative, which aims to fight the normalisation of sexual harassment in Egypt. The idea is to force society and institutions to deal with sexual harassment before it happens or react to it when it is happening. A collective stand against harassment can create social and legal consequences that criminalise and reduce harassment.
It collects sexual harassment reports via SMS, social media or its website and places them on a map – to document the problem and to alert women. It also provides free legal and psychological support to survivors.
Social media and feminist initiatives play a crucial role in exposing, shaming and holding sexual harassers to account, as well as raising awareness of the problem and offering psychological support to survivors. They may help decrease its prevalence within Egyptian society or even eradicate it altogether.
* The women mentioned preferred not to use their full names.