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Battling sexual harassment in Cairo and beyond

Sexual street harassment is a worldwide problem. Viral videos are highlighting the issue and organizations are trying to combat the trend but face an uphill battle as many accept the catcalls and looks as normal.

A woman walks silently across a bridge in Egypt's capital city of Cairo. Men turn their heads and stare at her, taking off their sunglasses to get a better look. Their mouths hang open, as she strolls by.

These scenes are part of a short video called "Creepers on an Egyptian Bridge," which went viral after it was posted on Vimeo by documentary filmmakers Tinne Van Loon and Colette Ghunim. They secretly filmed a woman crossing one of Cairo’s busiest bridges as a teaser for their upcoming documentary about Egyptian women facing sexual harassment on the streets of Cairo.

Almost every Egyptian women has been sexually harassed

"Sexual harassment on the streets is a huge problem and it affects pretty much everyone who spends time outside in public," says Noora Flinkman, head of communications and marketing at Harassmap, an organization dedicated to combating street harassment in Egypt. "It’s something you almost learn to live with."

A survey carried out by the United Nation’s Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women in Egypt in 2013 revealed that 99.3 percent of women in the country had been sexually harassed in one form or another.

Flinkman says the form of harassment on Egypt’s streets varies: "It’s everything from silent forms of harassment, like body language and looks, to catcalls, being followed, public masturbation or violent assault."

Victim shaming

Women in Delhi at the Delhi Slut Walk (Photo: Mustafa Quraishi/AP/dapd)

After several severe attacks against women in India, more and more women are speaking out against sexual harassment and rape

But despite the large amount of Egyptian women who are affected, many do not report their experiences. Talking about street harassment is considered a taboo and many women feel ashamed and are even blamed for the harassment. Meanwhile, many men deny it's even a problem.

"It's become completely normalized and accepted," says Flinkman. "Some men are even proud to say they harass and talk about how they do it."

A Swede living in Cairo, Flinkman herself has experienced extreme forms of harassment: "Not so long ago, I was in an elevator and the guy with me tried to pull me out on to an empty floor. He beat me, but I managed to defend myself and scream, so people came and he ran away."

For Flinkman, the everyday harassment, however, has the biggest impact.

"It's something that keeps me inside for whole days because sometimes I feel like I'm not strong enough to deal with this stuff and know anything could happen."

Perpetrators go unpunished

Graffiti against the sexual Harassment in Egypt (Photo: Nael Eltoukhy)

After women were attacked during protests at Tahrir Square, this graffiti against sexual harassment was created to highlight the ongoing issue

Harassment has long been a problem in Egypt but peaked during and after the Arab uprising in 2011, with women being attacked during protests at Tahrir Square.

Earlier this year, during the inauguration celebrations of the newly-elected President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, //www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-27800149:a">http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-27800149:a young student was stripped and attacked by a group of men in the square before police were able to intervene.

The Egyptian government has introduced some legislation in an attempt to tackle the problem, but advocates of change, like Flinkman, say it has little effect as men - the main perpetrators of street harassment - often go unpunished.

That’s why Harassmap was formed in 2010 by women who were tired of dealing with the catcalls. Since then, a group of volunteers regularly talk to people working on the streets, such as those who guard cars or buildings, to create bystanders who will no longer stand aside and let abuse happen.

"They have the power to make the harasser uncomfortable and to support the person being harassed," says Flinkman.

Viral campaigns

But it is not only in Egypt that sexual harassment on the streets occurs. All around the world, videos have been appearing online, demonstrating the comments and looks women have to deal with on a daily basis. The latest followed a woman walking through New York over the course of 10 hours, in which she received more than 100 catcalls from men.

The footage was produced in support of US-based anti-street harassment organization, Hollaback! One of the group's founders, Emily May, says the film made her "stomach turn."

"I think it stems from the sexism that exists in every culture and every country," she says. "It even happens in those places where people think it is safer."

A survey conducted by market-research firm GfK on behalf of the organization Stop Street Harassment found that more than two thirds of women living in the US said they had experienced such problems in public.

The first steps

While some argue that the comments made by men on the streets are in an effort to be complimentary, or to greet a passer-by, others say that any calls or action that make people feel uncomfortable or vulnerable should not be happening in the first place.

In Egypt, there is still a long way to go before women can walk the streets without fear of harassment, but Flinkman says things are moving in the right direction.

"We have seen some change. When Harassmap launched, nobody was talking about this issue - not the public, nor the media or even other established women's groups. Now, it's accepted that it's a problem. It's debatable as to what level the issue is being discussed and dealt with, but it's at least nice that everyone knows there is an issue. This is the first step."

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