Does Egypt have what it takes to stop sexual harassment?
Amid grave concerns, conspiracy theories, and alarming statistics, does Egypt have what it takes?
A few days after the incident that sent shockwaves across all Egypt, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi visited the victim of sexual harassment incident that took place during the celebrations of his inauguration in downtown Cairo. She had sustained serious injuries as a result of the assault.
“I apologize to you and to every Egyptian woman,” he told the woman in her hospital bed as he presented her with a bunch of flowers. “And I promise that this will never happen again.” The visit, the first of its kind, was met with positive reactions on the part of rights organizations. For director of the Egyptian Center for Women Rights Nehad Abul Komsan, the visit heralds the beginning of “the new state,” one in which women issues will be given priority.
“I have witnessed three eras,” she said in a TV interview. “First the [Hosni] Mubarak era when we raised the issue of sexual harassment and were told to shut up, then the [Mohammad] Mursi era when harassed women were held accountable for the assaults they were subjected to. Finally, now women are beginning to have their restores.”
For Hafez Abu Saeda, chairman of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, the visit’s significance mainly lies in the president’s acknowledgment of sexual harassment as an alarming phenomenon.
“The president now admits to the danger sexual violence is posing to Egyptian society and has highlighted urgency of fighting it,” he said in a press interview. Mohamed Zarea, director of the Cairo-based Arab Penal Reform Organization, sees the visit as an initial deterrent. “Criminals have recently been escalating their assaults owing to the absence of a deterrent, but the visit is a message to them that this will no longer be the case.”
Law too lenient
However, neither the visit nor the positive reactions to it managed to assuage the concerns of a large number of activists and organizations who are still questioning whether the new sexual harassment law, officially added as an amendment to the Egyptian penal code a couple of days before the incident, will be capable of effectively curbing the phenomenon. In fact, objections to the law started well before the inauguration day incident. Mounira Sabri, a member of Egypt’s New Woman Organization, said that the law does not mention mob attacks or the use of weapons.
“The punishment stated by the law is also extremely lenient, especially that it makes it up to the judge to choose either a jail sentence or a fine as punishment,” she said. Sabri added that the law renders stalking a main component of the crime of harassment, which, she argues, is a major problem. “This will open the door for many interpretations of the action of ‘stalking’ plus harassment can be committed without following the victim at all.”
Fathi Farid, coordinator of the “I Saw Harassment” initiative, which encourages Egyptians to come forward if they spot any incidents, pointed out that one of the major problems of the law is the fact that the victim has to take the harasser with two witnesses to the police station. “The law did not also make it clear how the crime of harassment can be proven,” he said. Farid criticized the law’s failure to protect the victim properly.
Jail sentence, fine or both?
“The law mentioned nothing about the support offered to victims after the crime and nothing about specific cases like if the offender is the victim’s father or uncle,” he added. Farid also criticized the punishment, which he argued should be both a jail sentence and a fine that are determined in an ascending order in accordance with the severity of the crime. While Farid did not deny that issuing the law in itself is a step on the right path, he still questioned its ability to end sexual harassment. “It is a positive step no doubt, but it is a law for adapting to the crime rather than eliminating it.”
Mazan Hassam, director of Nazra for Feminist Studies, called for dedicating an entire chapter in the Egyptian penal code to sexual assaults on women. “This chapter should be entitled ‘Crimes of sexual violence’ and should include everything related to those crimes instead of having them now scattered across three chapters.”
Following the sexual assault incident, a group of women and human rights organizations issued a joint statement underlining the shortcomings of the current sexual harassment law and demanding amendments that would guarantee stricter penalties. “We demand adding a clear definition of rape that includes oral and anal rape and rape with knives and fingers as well as a clear definition of sexual assault,” said the statement. The signatories also called for an amendment that protects victims from other forms of harassment that follow reporting the crime, especially by the families of offenders.
Ibaa al-Hamimi, a spokesman of the Harass Map initiative, argued that the problem lies in the implementation rather than the text of the law and cited the police as the major challenge. “The police often tend to sympathize with harassers or be harassers themselves,” she told the Guardian. “Even when someone manages to get to the police station to report harassment, she will still encounter resistance from police officers, who will try to deter her from going through with filing the police report.” Two policemen interviewed by the Guardian had different views on the issue.
The first, Colonel Ahmed al-Dahaby, said that the problem is not the police as much as the society. “Our traditions are what stop people from filing charges. The girls are scared—they’re too ashamed,” he said. The second, who spoke on condition of anonymity, partly blamed women for the crime of sexual harassment. “The fault is a shared one between the guy and the girl—the girls because of the way they dress,” he said.
On the other hand, the sexual assault was seen by many as part of a conspiracy to tarnish Egypt’s image and ruin the inauguration day celebration. This view was supported by head of the National Council for Women Mervat al-Tellawi who accused the Muslim Brotherhood of orchestrating the incident. “Women were dancing in front of polling stations on election days and nobody harassed them so what happened on the inauguration day is suspicious,” she said in a TV interview.
“Those criminals were paid by the Muslim Brotherhood to ruin the happiness of the people.” Tellawi supported her argument with a tweet written by the daughter of senior Muslim Brotherhood leader and which read, “Even Tahrir Square, the icon of revolution and struggle for freedom, is now the square of dancing, harassment, and vice.” Hayat al-Shimi, member of the executive bureau of the National Front of the Women of Egypt, agreed with Tellawi. “This was a conspiracy to tarnish Egypt’s image in front of the world and the culprits infiltrated the square for this purpose,” she said. Sheikh Mazhar Shahin, the imam of Omar Makram Mosque in Tahrir Square, also accused the Muslim Brotherhood. “This is a trap,” he wrote, “We have taken part in a hundred protests before and this never happened. The timing shows that this is a conspiracy to embarrass Sisi.”
Talk about a Muslim Brotherhood conspiracy was scoffed at by a number of activists and groups, who expressed their indignation at the denial of a problem as pressing as sexual harassment. In response to conspiracy theories about the sex attack, writer Mai Nour prepared a report that included U.N. statistics about sexual harassment in Egypt. “According to a U.N. Women study conducted in 2013, 96.5% of Egyptian women were subjected sexual harassment and in 93% of the cases the police do not come to their rescue even when being asked by the victims,” she wrote. Nour also mentioned virginity tests conducted on female protestors in March 2011 in the military prison as a form of state-sponsored sexual harassment.
Amid grave concerns, conspiracy theories, and alarming statistics state officials stress that the new law would gradually prove its effectiveness in curbing then eventually eliminating sexual harassment.
For Ahmed al-Sergani, deputy interior minister for human rights, criminalizing sexual harassment is in itself a major step. “For the first time the word ‘sexual harassment’ is mentioned is the penal code as a crime,” he said. Sergani also said that there is a plan for supporting victims of sexual harassment.” A special fund will be established in coordination with the National Council for Women for all sorts of violence against women including forced marriages and sexual exploitation,” he explained. “We are also working on establishing special sexual violence units in police stations where trained female cops can receive the victims.”
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