Nihal Saad Zaghloul saw her friend sexually assaulted in the middle of Egypt’s Tahrir Square and was unable to help. Farid Farid reports from Cairo on a new campaign to combat such attacks against women.
"It was the time when there were a lot of attacks in Tahrir Square, a lot of sexual assaults there and one of those assaults happened to a friend of mine, in front of me, so it got really personal," Nihal Saad Zaghloul told DW.
Zaghloul was also sexually harassed that day in June 2012 by a mob of men motivating her later to co-found Bassma, an organization dedicated toward fighting sexual violence in public space.
Meaning imprint in Arabic, the group has been leaving its mark in one of Cairo's busiest public spaces - metro stations. Cairo is one of the world's most congested cities and with relatively low prices for public transport millions use the metro.
"Initially we thought about doing a regular public campaign distributing a booklet with these comic strips in the metro stations or in universities. When we tried to get clearance from the transport authorities, we were denied it," Zaghloul explained.
Leaving a mark
To capitalize on this foot traffic and get around the bureaucracy, Bassma commissioned artist Ahmed Nady to create comic strips depicting everyday incidents of sexual harassment in Egypt and then bought large ad spaces in one of the main stations to raise awareness about the issue in a novel way.
Zaghloul maintains that reception has been positive so far but noted that it will take years before hardened attitudes that blame women for their actions shift.
"A few men have written on the white spaces of the comics statements such as 'let women dress modestly or let women be veiled and nobody will get harassed.' You find that those men that say women should be veiled are themselves the ones that harass veiled women!"
She recounted that during this year's Eid, marking the end of Ramadan, as part of Bassma's efforts to protect women from attacks, she confronted a group of men who were harassing women and was met with bizarre explanations for their behavior.
"They tell me 'I have to try. I have to harass her to see whether she will go out with me.' They will come up with excuses such as she was laughing too loud or she had locks of her hair out of the veil, she looked at me and smiled. They will come up with anything to justify their actions," she added.
The campaign could not have been timelier as Reham Saeed, a controversial television host, last week scolded a sexual harassment victim, Somaya Tarek, who had turned to her for help after she was attacked in a mall. Saeed later broadcast photos of Tarek criticizing her for a lack of modesty. A social media campaign against Saeed ensued forcing the TV channel Al Nahar to stop the program temporarily while over a dozen major sponsors pulled out.
Bassma's tagline is 'sexual harassment doesn't just hurt her, sexual harassment hurts us all,' signalling that it is a societal problem involving many actors, not just women.
"As long as women's bodies are used as the space where political conflicts manifest themselves, this will remain a problem," says Sherine Hafez, associate professor of gender and Middle East studies at the University of California Riverside.
She told DW that prior to the revolution "sexual harassment...was used in politically repressive ways" by the regime. "This continued during the revolution and after it to terrorize women and families and to create insecurity around political participation."
In one of the most horrific incidents of sexual assault, Egypt's military forced 'virginity tests' on women in 2011 sparking international outrage and shedding a light on how the state is complicit in engendering sexual violence.
"It is one thing to have a law to protect women but without the necessary training of police personnel and society as a whole such laws rely on the individual's ability to use them," Hafez said.
New laws punishing sexual harassers for up to five years in prison and fining them up to 5,000 euros were instituted for the first time last year. Zaghloul also says that the state must address legal gaps that add to the precariousness of women reporting an attack.
The group plans to expand to other major stations in greater metropolitan Cairo and continue running ads until February 2016. Zaghloul hopes that the campaign will mobilize Egyptians to confront the rising epidemic of sexual harassment. According to a recent UN study over 90 percent of Egyptian women say they were harassed in some form.
"We want to change how people view sexual harassment and we want to eliminate or demolish this idea of victim blaming. It is not the woman's fault," she said.