HarassMap’s fifth birthday and it’s continued work in Egypt

By Mohamed El-Khateeb.

Its HarassMap’s 5th anniversary.

The fact that our initiative has been out there for 5 years is amazing and also breathtaking to me as a member of the very first HarassMap core team of volunteers.

HarassMap was established in 2010 by four women. Rebecca Chiao, Engy Ghozlan, Sawsan Gad and Amel Fahmy came together to start an initiative that aims to end the social acceptability of sexual harassment in Egypt.

The core team and co-founders proposed that if we aim to change the way people perceive sexual harassment in Egypt, to criminalize the act and change it from being a normal thing into a socially rejected act, we’d help in ending this phenomenon on a wide scale.

That idea came from a very simple fact: that there were already laws in Egypt – back in 2010 – that criminalize sexual harassment, although in a vague and unclear legal language. Noha Roushdy, one of the first Egyptian women to file a law suit against a harasser, won her law suit using the old law.

Despite the laws in place, perpetrators of sexual violence were mainly at large because people, including survivors of sexual violence, would not speak to up to them. The harassers’ impunity came from the social inaction towards the issue and, instead of fighting to change, blaming the victim. This also included police personnel, who in many cases, refused to file police reports against suspects and at times talked down to the survivors of these crimes, convincing them at best to “let it go.”

I recall back in November 2011, when I joined HarassMap as a volunteer, that many voices in the media and public sphere spoke about the necessity of having a new law; overlooking the role of society in this case. We had materials back then with the full text of the article in the Egyptian Penal Code that banned sexual harassment with fines and jail sentences. I even remember reading out the text of that article on a radio show aired by a local FM station.

People we approached for the first time, whether they were journalists or members of the general public, would never fail to be surprised to know that a law existed against sexual harassment. There were many downsides to the law of course, including the fact that it didn’t mention the words “sexual” or “harassment.”

Yet, in many cases filed under the previous law, there were successful lawsuits because the actions taken by the harassers would fit the description listed in the law and hence a good lawyer was always able to present the survivors’ case to a judge in a court of law.

Since then however, the laws were amended many times and the latest edition is even better, though it lacks many important aspects.

At the same time, HarassMap and many of the other organizations operating have managed to raise people’s awareness of the issue.

Back in the days, in 2011, the word harassment or (taharoush) wasn’t as commonly used as it is today, and would be understood very differently. At the time, people often used the word “flirting” (moaksa), which definitely doesn’t fit for purpose of explaining the issue of sexual violence in Egypt.

Thanks to the efforts of these groups, we have managed to reclaim the proper terminology and bring it back to popular use.

The situation in 2015 is better, in comparison to the blanket of silence that previously covered the issue of sexual violence in Egypt. We are now able to talk openly about the issue, many perpetrators have been sentenced to fines and jail terms for their acts, women are finding it easier to speak up and share their stories on social media and members of the society, women and men alike, are volunteering and standing up against sexual violence in Egypt.

It was a long, tiring journey to get to this point. Yet, it was worth the effort.

Throughout my work with HarassMap, first as a core-team volunteer member from November 2011 to October 2012 and later as an admin manager November 2012 up to June 2013, I saw much of this turn around happening very slowly as we established ourselves as a non-governmental organization.

During that time, I have learned and acquired a lot of skills and knowledge on the issue and on other aspects in my personal life. Despite that, I do have two personal regrets for things that I wish I had done or focused on during my earlier tenure with HarassMap.

The mob-assaults in Tahrir square, during the political protests spanning from January 25, 2013 up to July 4th, 5th and 6th 2013, were one of the worst experiences I have ever witnessed. Their brutality caused great shock and pain to me. They were un-explained, anonymous bouts of violence, directed at peaceful female protestors and anyone who decides to help them getting out of the lock of these mob-assault circles.

In addition to the pain and injuries incurred by the survivors of these events, which I witnessed as part of Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment and Assault (OpAntiSH), caused severe psychological effects on me as well.

Definitely, my personal pain doesn’t level with or weigh in comparison to the targets of these attacks themselves. However, such events had an impact on my ability to continue the daily fight against street harassment and other forms of sexual violence in the public sphere.

Today, in the luxury of my home overseas, I can critically think of that phase and realize that I should have given my full attention to fighting the routine and daily incidents of harassment as well as the mob assault attacks in Tahrir Square. I do understand, however, that such attacks in general represented the worst escalation point of sexual violence incidents in the modern history of Egypt.

Since these waves of extreme violence have receded with the end of the protests in 2013, we can now again see clearly that the issue of street harassment and cat calling etc. needs to be dealt with and get our full attention.

The second thing I regret not doing is starting a community mobilization team in my very own neighborhood in Cairo. At the time, I was more focused on a regional level, joining many of our events and activities in places like Benha, Tomouh (Giza), Zamalek (Cairo) and Masr ElKadima (Old Cairo).

Although I lived in Mokattam for years, I didn’t pay much attention to my own neighborhood and the need to establish a team there. By 2013, I was already busy with our routine work plus working with the other community groups that were established since 2011 and beyond.

Despite these regrets, I am satisfied with my overall work experience and journey with HarassMap since 2011.

We’ve evolved from a handful of people meeting at Bikya Café or other favorite spots in Cairo, to working from a fully functional and well prepared office, with at least a dozen staff members and hundreds of volunteers across 23 Egyptian governorates.

HarassMap’s, and many of our fellow anti-harassment social groups’, efforts are way more in demand today than ever in the previous 5 years.

Today, the social platform is open for all people to share their stories and testimonies about sexual harassment that happens on a daily routine. The Ministry of Interior, which is responsible for the Egyptian civil police, has established a special department that deals with gender-based violence against women.

We see pictures of police-women as they patrolled the streets last Eid and arrested sexual harassment suspects (with all reservations related to the handling of the suspects), and we can also see an increasing trend of people who are shifting and siding with the survivors against the perpetrators of these crimes.

Such is a pivotal moment in our fight for safer streets for all people, especially women and girls, in Egypt. For that, I wish all my colleagues the best of luck and continued success in their work in the field and beyond.

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