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Egypt's women fight sexual assault

Menna A. Farouk Cairo
December 28, 2016

Women who experience sexual assault in Egypt have begun asserting themselves, say local NGOs. Ever more are reporting harassment to police and fighting for their abusers to be jailed. Menna A. Farouk reports from Cairo.

Female university students raising awareness about sexual harassment at a booth at Ain Shams University in Cairo
Image: DW/M. A. Farouk

"It was tough to get him to the police station," says Nemaa Gamal, 32, of the man who assaulted her. Weary after a day's work, she was shocked when a man openly groped her from behind as she rode home with a friend on a Cairo microbus in 2013.

"I screamed at the top of my lungs and told the driver to stop at the nearest police station," she says. Luckily, the driver was helpful and a police station was near. But the attacker, a 52-year-old man, squeezed out of a bus window and took off running. Her friend jumped out of the bus with Gamal and caught the assailant and dragged him to the police station.

Then Gamal's search for a lawyer began.

Progress since revolution

Sexual harassment has long been a problem in Egypt, especially during national and religious holidays, but it became a subject of intense public debate following the 2011 uprising against then-president Hosni Mubarak. Then reports of mass sexual assaults, harassment and rape on Cairo's Tahrir Square made national - and international - headlines.

Masses of people demonstrate on Tahrir Square in Cairo
Tahrir Square was closely associated with the revolution and later notorious for the sexual assaults that occurred thereImage: dapd

"Constant media coverage of the sexual attacks that took place during protests in Tahrir Square during and after the revolution helped uproot public denial of the phenomenon," Entessar el-Saeed, executive director of the Cairo Center for Development, a leading women's rights group, told DW.

In the wake of the revolution, volunteers organized campaigns to rescue women subjected to mob attacks during protests, anti-harassment graffiti appeared on walls around downtown Cairo, and more women started to publicly share their own stories of sexual harassment.

It was made a crime carrying jail sentences and fines in 2014.

The law, which includes a prison sentence and a fine or both, states that a sexual harasser is one who accosts others in a public or private place through following or stalking them, using gestures or words or through modern means of communications or in any other means through actions that carry sexual or pornographic hints.

Since the revolution, non-governmental organizations and human rights groups have begun seeing a transformation in women's attitudes towards the phenomenon. They say more cases are being reported and more harassers jailed.

"Of course, there is progress," said el-Saeed, explaining that her organization had won more than 15 sexual harassment cases since 2013, most of which resulted in prison terms after the new law came into effect the following year, a few days before the inauguration of President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi.

Later that year, Sissi visited a woman in a Cairo hospital after she was brutally assaulted by a group of men during celebrations of his inauguration in Tahrir Square. Sissi gave her flowers, apologized and vowed to crack down on sexual harassment. The following month, seven men were sentenced to life and two men to 20 years over assaults around Tahrir Square.

Long arm of the law

At the police station, Nemaa Gamal, with her friend as a witness, reported that she had been sexually harassed.

Nemaa Gamal sits at a table at the NGO that helped her sue her harasser
Gamal found the courage to pursue the man who harassed herImage: DW/M. A. Farouk

"Actually, if it were not for my courage at the time and the help of my friend, I think I would not be able to sue the harasser," Gamal said. "Six years ago, I could not do that," she added, highlighting her change of personality and recalling her frustration at the police officers' attitude when she first went to report a sexual assault in 2010.

"When I was sexually harassed that year, I burst into tears. I then ran to the police station to report what happened. But the police mocked me and gave me a false report number," she said. Gamal had been attacked by a man who was trying to grope her from behind as she walked along a crowded street.

"At the time, I was not aware enough. I did not know how I can convict a harasser," she says. Then she began attending awareness campaigns about sexual abuse put on by several Egyptian NGOs. "So, when it happened again in 2013, I knew what to do," she adds.

Ways to resist

Numerous groups have played a part spreading awareness at the country's universities and broadcasting public service spots against sexual harassment on television and radio. Anti-harassment units where women can report incidents have been set up at police stations, in the public transport system and at universities. The Interior Ministry has deployed female police officers to the streets on holidays to help prevent sexual harassment.

There are still women who feel uncomfortable about reporting to police stations, but they have found another way of resisting, said Fathi Farid, a founder of the anti-harassment initiative Aman ("Safety").

"Some women have started to use electrical rods and cheaper weapons, like pepper spray and nail files. They also sometimes take video and photos of their harassers and post them on social network sites to disclose their indecent acts," Farid told DW.

At a booth at Ain Shams University, one of the country's largest, a group of students - male and female - recently gathered to raise awareness (photo, above) as part of a global campaign against gender-based violence.

Nora Sameh, one of the volunteers, said she had started to take action herself: "I hit them with my bag, curse them and sometimes run after them," the 21-year-old said.

Young women walk past a line of men sitting outside a café near Tahrir Square in Cairo
The atmosphere in Egypt is changing slowly, women sayImage: picture-alliance/dpa/A.Gintenreiter

Sameh said she had once reported sexual harassment, but nothing happened. That's why she had started to retaliate.

"This thing with sexual harassment, I used to tell no one," she said. "Now I tell everyone and write about it on social media. That is the only way I can fight it," she said, adding that she was seeing very slow change.

Vindication in court

Nemaa Gamal said it was a long struggle to get her harasser to court. A friend who saw her Facebook post about the incident helped her make contact with the NGO that took up her case pro bono.

"It did not take long to get a lawyer, but what took really long were the legal procedures. It took us about one and a half years to get the case to court," she said.

Her determination paid off when the court - in its first session - sentenced the harasser to five years in prison.

"We have to stand up to it and resist," Gamal said. "Otherwise, it will spread more and more and no one will be able to stop it."