Women are increasingly afraid to walk the streets of Cairo, worried they will be attacked or groped in public. Nihal Saad Zaghloul has taken on a daring task to put an end to sexual harassment in Egypt.
Nihal Saad Zaghloul was a victim of assault when she and her friends were walking through Tahrir Square, an event she described as startling. Months later she bravely returned to the spot of the attack to attend a protest supporting violence against women. Now a civic rights activist, the 26-year-old has expanded her involvement in the initiative and has begun a support group called Bassma, meaning imprint. The group’s objective: to call attention to the surge of sexual harassment in Egypt and to expose the forces behind the widespread aggression towards women.
Deutsche Welle: Having an impact, leaving an impression, that is the mission of your support group. Within the Egyptian community, what are some positive responses you've received about the movement?
Nihal Saad Zaghloul: Many people have started to break the silence and talk about experiences that they faced or that they saw and people started saying no to sexual harassment and standing up for their rights. Women have started standing up for their rights, and this is one of the biggest achievements.
Eygptian women demonstrating December 2011
Another achievement was, for example, our patrolling in the metro for another week after that. After we were done the police came and started patrolling. This is a good achievement because the police have now admitted there is a problem. With the latest study, I think in 2010, it was that 83 percent of Egyptian women have been sexually harassed, and 62 percent of men have admitted to sexual harassment of women.
That's well before the Arab Spring. This means it's an endemic cultural problem that's been going on for a long time; it's nothing new. How do you explain it?
I don't think it has anything to do with Egyptian culture. From my perspective, one problem is oppression. Egyptian society has long been oppressed by the Mubarak regime. Men and women were oppressed. It's only natural that if men are oppressed they oppress what they view as weaker and in this case it was women.
And then came the media, which has portrayed all women as sex objects, basically they are to be used and then to be thrown away. And men and women aren't allowed to date for example. So the media portrays a society that does not go with our society. The problem started growing. One of the main problems that kept going was that no one was being punished. It's always the fault of the women.
From your experience, what kinds of men are doing this? Can you see a certain pattern?
There are men who look educated, but they just want to have fun. There are other kinds of men. For example, you can see with the mass sexual harassment mostly from the lower-middle classes, mostly very poor people. Mostly kids between the ages of 12 and 18, teenagers basically. They will walk after women and start saying words and then groping them or doing something else.
Can you describe the dynamics of such group attacks?
They usually go after the woman who will be silent and not scream. For example, on Tahrir or in other areas with large groups of people, and they know they will stay anonymous.
What about tactics on the ground? What's working best for you and other activist? There were reports recently about spray paint being used as a way of identifying men who are harassers in crowds in Tahrir Square.
We don't use spray paint and we don't use violence at all. We try to form a human wall between the harasser and the woman and then we talk to the men to stop harassing them. We try to discuss it with them. If you use spray paint, and if you start using violence, you are going to alienate the public in the end.
You can't convince someone who is used to this, sometimes it is a habit. For example a 10-year-old is not sexually frustrated; he is just doing what he saw his older brother or even his father doing. For many years women have been silent about this, some of them actually don't know that they are doing something wrong.
Nihal Saad Zaghloul is an IT programmer who began the women’s support group Bassma in 2012.
Interview: Kate Laycock, Neil King / cg