The Fight Against Sexual Harassment

Legal Deterrence Coupled with Social Support to Victims Tackled in Egypt
Illustration by Migdad.

Last October, a young Egyptian woman was in Cairo’s main underground line when she found a man sitting opposite to her who was staring at her while making some explicit sexual gestures. She took a video of him before she got off the train in the next station from which he followed her to the street. Once she went home, she uploaded the video on social media to report the man’s behavior and to have him punished for the emotional harm the incident had on her. In a record time, police authorities were able to identify the man and arrest him. He was prosecuted and sentenced to three years in prison.

The speedy justice and the girl’s courage to report the incident were applauded by the society hoping that this will deter any harasser. The reporting and the subsequent punishment were also a culmination of various efforts exerted by official and non-official entities which have launched campaigns to fight harassment that has been showing its ugly face to society for many long years. The question remains whether legal punishment will effectively remain a deterrence, and whether initiatives that support women and call for society to stand up for them, instead of blaming them or stigmatizing them, will put an end to the high harassment rates?

ALARMING STATISTICS

Incidents of sexual harassment in public spaces take place every day all over the world. The reasons vary and are not limited to the perpetrator or the victim as they may also include the witnesses and the society that neglected the incident and blamed the wrong side in the first place. It may also include the stigma that is attached to the victim so she won’t report because of her fear of a bad reputation. According to RAINN, an American anti-sexual violence organization, some forms of sexual harassment include “Making conditions of employment or advancement dependent on sexual favors, either explicitly or implicitly. Physical acts of sexual assault. Requests for sexual favors. Verbal harassment of a sexual nature, including jokes referring to sexual acts or sexual orientation. Unwanted touching or physical contact. Unwelcome sexual advances. Discussing sexual relations/stories/fantasies at work, school, or in other inappropriate places. Feeling pressured to engage with someone sexually. Exposing oneself or performing sexual acts on oneself. Unwanted sexually explicit photos, emails, or text messages.”

A 2013 study published by UN Women titled “Study on Ways and Methods to Eliminate Sexual Harassment in Egypt” showed that “99.3% of girls and women surveyed reported experiencing some form of sexual harassment in their lifetime.” The study also revealed that 82.6% of the total female respondents did not feel safe or secure in the street, while the percent increased to 86.5% with regard to safety and security in public transportation.

Women chant slogans as they gather to protest against sexual harassment in front of the opera house in Cairo June 14, 2014. (REUTERS/Asmaa Waguih)

Incidents of harassment are experienced by women of all ages, according to a survey of Sexual Harassment in the Middle East and North Africa published by Arab Barometer in December 2019. The study mentioned that “Sexual harassment in public places is widespread in Egypt,” as “around 90 percent of the young respondents (aged 17-28) in Egypt have experienced sexual harassment in public places. In addition, more than 50 percent of these young women are more likely to be publicly harassed in Algeria, Jordan, Sudan and Yemen. Besides, between 35 percent and 45 percent of women in the same age group declared being harassed in Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Palestine and Tunisia.”

Psychiatrist Dr. Rehab Abdel-Fattah revealed to the Majalla that the “harassment victim is subjected to a psychological trauma resulting from the exposure to a sudden incident that threatens her life. The trauma can also happen due to witnessing someone else experiencing the incident.” She also added that “exposure to sexual abuse can cause a trauma similar to traumas resulting from war.”

Explaining why the victim may not be able to take action most of the time, Dr. Rehab said that “the amygdala in the human nervous system can feel the danger and stop logical thinking in order to minimize or cancel any sensation of pain, so the victim can escape for her life. This would affect her memory of details, and make her feel as if she was dreaming to protect her from the resulting severe psychological and physical pain.”

Short-term effects include “severe psychological pain and feeling of guilt and unbelief,” Dr. Rehab said, adding that “the victim would suffer depressive and anxiety symptoms along with sleep disorders and low self-esteem. She may not be able to confront whatever reminds her of the incident and may involuntarily recall it.”

Unfortunately, 15% of sexual harassment victims may not be able to overcome the suffering and its psychological effects. Dr. Rehab said that this would mean that they had “post-traumatic stress disorder” which requires long-term therapy and may have psychological and psychosomatic consequences such as depression, anxiety and physical pain that is not related to any other physical illness.

The doctor added that “the victim frequently recalls the incident which comes back in the form of nightmares, or sudden retrieval of psychological or physical feelings as if the incident is happening again. This results in avoidance of anything that reminds her of the accident.”

In this file photo taken on February 12, 2013, an Egyptian protester holds up his hand with a slogan reading in Arabic: “Egyptian girls are a red line” during a demonstration in Cairo against sexual harassment. (AFP)

SUPPORT GROUPS

Fear of experiencing similar incidents in the streets may be seen in taking quick steps accompanied by frequent looking behind, crossing the road to avoid passersby or parking cars, shrinking back in public transportation and paying for an empty next chair to avoid company. These sorts of tensions are only felt by women and girls who hope for a safe environment where any harasser would be punished and they would be entitled to complain and have their pain be taken seriously.

Many sexual harassment victims lost their rights due to their fear of reporting and inability to provide evidence. They also could not bear the subsequent social stigma associated with the incident. However, anti-harassment initiatives have never stopped in Egypt for the past 15 years, and their relentless support for girls and women against harassers have yielded some positive results.

One of the most significant issues on which these initiatives focus has been encouraging women and girls to speak and report, while social media have provided a vital platform for instant revelation and reporting.

The efforts have ranged from advocacy groups and NGOs that host events to support women and raise awareness about the importance of reporting to emerging initiatives started by group of young men and women to instill confidence in girls and dispel misinformation about the problem.

For example, a platform called “Speakup – أتكلم/ي” is receiving complaints of girls and women via a template that keeps them anonymous and gives them access to legal and psychological assistance to overcome the harmful experience.

“Harassment is a Crime, Don’t Keep Silent” is a most recent initiative that urges girls to ask for their rights and calls on society to assist them. The campaign was launched by students of the media department in the Faculty of Arts, Menoufia University. Along with two male colleagues, a group of ten girls produced a series of videos that display true stories of girls who experienced sexual harassment in their daily lives.

“At the beginning, we shared a questionnaire to collect true incidents of girls who were subjected to harassment, and we received many such stories whose victims feared how society would view or judge them,” one of the campaigners told Majalla.

In one video, a girl narrates a harassment incident she encountered in a public bus in her way home. She began saying, “I have been always wondering how would a girl scream in a certain situation but find no help? How would people even take a stance against her and keep her silenced?”

She said that when she screamed in the face of a sexual harasser in the bus, the other passengers did not believe her or condemn the harasser, they even accused her of overreacting. The only thing she was able to do was to slap his face and leave the bus, feeling the pain of being let down.

A LEGISLATIVE VICTORY

The first law to criminalize sexual harassment in Egypt was approved in June 2014, by amending the article 306 (bis) (a) of the Penalty Code, which provided that, “individuals who carry out sexual or obscene gestures in any manner, including by modern means of communication, will be punished with a term of imprisonment of not less than six months or a fine of EGP3,000 (about US$419).”

In August 2021, as a result of persistent efforts fighting harassment for the past seven years, President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi ratified amendments to the 58/1937 Penal Law to tighten the punishment of the perpetrators to a sentence of not less than two years and no more than four years, and a fine of no less than 100,000 Egyptian pounds and no more than 200,000 Egyptian pounds, or any of the two penalties.

The decision was applauded by women’s organizations and civil society who saw it as a step to empower Egyptian women.

Remarkably, some recent sexual harassment cases in the courts tackled the issue of the harasser’s mental state during the incident, as the perpetrator’s defense was aiming at mitigating the sentence. However, as Dr. Rehab Abdel-Fattah revealed, “mental illness explains the behavior but does not justify it.” Although some brain injuries might result in unusual behavior, the most common assessment of a harasser is a psychopathic personality disorder which tends to criminal practices, Dr. Rehab explained, and the law does not exempt the criminal from responsibility.

 

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