Breaking the Silence Surrounding Sexual Harassment in Egypt and Beyond

Accusations of Serial Rapes Ignite a #MeToo Firestorm 

A new #MeToo firestorm is erupting in Egypt as a wave of allegations of sexual misconduct against a 22-year-old Egyptian university student who attended some of the country’s most elite schools and universities have been amplified on social media in the past two weeks. More than 100 accusers posted detailed allegations of sexual harassment and assault on the Instagram account "Assault Police". Some were minors when the alleged crimes took place.  

 

Helen Rizzo, an associate professor of sociology and chair of the Department of Sociology, Anthropology and Egyptology at The American University in Cairo, says that while she was horrified at the number of accusers and severity of the accusations, she was “not surprised about the similarities this case seems to have with other wealthy and powerful perpetrators who were able to get away with sexual and gender based violence (SGBV) for years.” 

 

The suspect, Ahmed Bassam Zaki, was arrested last week from his home in a gated community outside Cairo. The government also approved amendments, yet to be passed by parliament, to the criminal code that would grant the right of anonymity to victims of sexual assault.  And the prestigious religious institution Al Azhar released a strongly-worded statement lambasting harassment as "forbidden and deviant" and encouraged women to testify about sexual assault while rejecting any suggestion that their dress or behavior was to blame. The Dar al-Ifta, in charge of issuing religious edicts, slammed those who blame women for wearing provocative clothing as "sick". 

 

The quick and public action was a significant turn for Egypt, where sexual harassment and violence are tragically common.

 

Sexual violence came to the forefront of public awareness after high-profile attacks in 2011 in Tahrir Square, the centre of Egypt's uprising, but also a place where women were subjected to sexual assault, and 2014, when a woman was gang-raped in public. In January, outrage erupted over a viral video that showed a mob swarming a screaming woman in Mansura, north of Cairo. 

 

Sexual harassment is so widespread that a 2013 United Nations study found that nearly all Egyptian women — 99 percent of those surveyed — had been victims of it. A report by Harassmap - a company whose app aims to allow women to highlight unsafe regions of the capital, Cairo - found that more than 95% of women sampled in the city had been harassed. According to a study conducted by Promundo, a Brazilian organization for gender equality, 64 per cent of Egyptian men admit to harassing women. According to research on sexual violence against women by the Thomson Reuters Foundation in 2017, Cairo ranked worst for women’s safety, after New Delhi, Karachi and Kinshasa.  

 

“Most women have experienced some form of sexual harassment in public spaces and it includes the whole spectrum of behaviors from staring, suggestive and lewd comments, masturbation, grabbing body parts, stalking, and sexual assault. I don't believe we have the same levels of documentation for domestic violence/intimate partner violence and, in particular, workplace sexual harassment even though we know that women are suffering and living in fear of these forms of SGBV as well,” Prof. Rizzo said.

 

As Zaki’s case unwound, it was revealed that in 2016, when he was a senior at the American International School in Cairo, allegations were made against him yet punitive action was not taken, reinforcing the view that impunity for sexual harassment perpetrators is rife in Egypt. Prof. Rizzo explains that this culture of impunity and as well as deeply-seated societal issues contribute to harassment: “It is a combination of factors: gender inequality and misogyny at all levels of society, harassers/perpetrators knowing that they most likely won't be punished and failures at the institutional level,” Prof. Rizzo said.

 

Compounding the lack of justice, the systemic tendency to blame women for what they have endured and the social stigma associated with speaking out about experiences with sexual harassment or assault results in massive underreporting, leaving millions suffering in silence.  

 

“Like most countries, there is a high rate of underreporting of this type of abuse, harassment and SGBV.  Women and girls often do not report because they blame themselves for what happened and feel ashamed, others know that they will be victim blamed and stigmatized-- asked what did they do to bring on this on to themselves (e.g. how they were dressed, being out late, questioning of their reputations), that they won't be taken seriously or believed, their accusations belittled or not seen as crimes (e.g. you're pretty, why aren't you taking this as a compliment?) and be revictimized so it is just not worth it,” said Prof. Rizzo. 

 



Egyptians take part in a protest against sexual harassment in Cairo, Egypt on June 14, 2014. (Getty)

 

Though shame and stigma could be argued to be universal, it's particularly an issue in the Arab world, where women face serious repercussions for speaking out. “Some are afraid that their families will not believe them and again will be blamed and possibly punished for what happened,” she added.

 

research project by Harassmap which compared the reports of/data on public space harassment that Harassmap received on its online, anonymous, crowd sourced reporting system/map compared to data on harassment collected through surveys, interviews and focus groups, found that although conceptualized and portrayed in different ways, sexual harassment in Egypt is a display of gendered power and the result of underlying sexist, patriarchal social and cultural discourses and performances. 

 

“Our field and Map data suggest that these are the key reasons for the existence and continuation of sexual harassment in Egypt. The patriarchal social and cultural context facilitates the occurrence and normalization of sexual harassment and researchers have found that sexual harassment is more likely to occur in places where the “situational norm” is tolerant or accepting of this practice and less likely to occur where “situational norms” are not supportive,” the report said. 

 

Evidence of this tolerance, the report said, is clear through the passive attitudes of bystanders towards harassed women, the prevalence of victim blaming, the lack of empathy, police officers’ failure to provide assistance to harassed women, the long and complicated legal procedures necessary to prosecute and convict harassers, powerful myths justifying harassment and the social stigma surrounding discussing and reporting sexual harassment. 

 

But sexual harassment is not limited to one country, one culture, one group of people or even one gender.  

 

According to the UN, one in three women across the world have experienced some form of physical or sexual abuse. With numbers climbing as high as 70 per cent in some parts of the world. The Middle East and North Africa are on the high end of the spectrum, though data is scarce due to a lack of research. In a multi-country study from the Middle East and North Africa, between 40 and 60 per cent of women said they had ever experienced street-based sexual harassment (mainly sexual comments, stalking/following, or staring/ogling), and 31 per cent to 64 per cent of men said they had ever carried out such acts. Younger men, men with more education, and men who experienced violence as children were more likely to engage in street sexual harassment.  

 

Sexual harassment is particularly problematic in Morocco where violence against women stands at 54.5 per cent nationwide, according to a government survey. And that doesn’t include the 90 per cent of sexual assault victims who don’t report the crimes against them. The US State Department cites under safety concerns for travellers going to Morocco that “harassment of women are the most frequently reported issues". 

 

While the majority of sexual harassment claims involve women making allegations against men, emerging evidence suggests that sexual harassment against men also exists. A survey for BBC News Arabic of 10 countries and the Palestinian territories found that in two of those countries - Tunisia and Iraq - more men than women reported experiencing verbal and physical sexual harassment. In Tunisia the margin was small, just 1%. But Iraq really stood out. Here 39% of men said they had experienced verbal sexual harassment, compared with 33% of women. And 20% of Iraqi men said that they had experienced physical sexual violence, compared with 17% of Iraqi women.

 

Despite the serious consequences that can stem from sexual harassment, almost two-thirds of countries lack legislation on sexual harassment, rape or domestic violence, according to the Social Institutions and Gender index. In certain countries, a rapist can escape punishment if he marries the victim, and martial rape is not recognised

 

The culture of suppressing and inhibiting discourse around the idea of sexual harassment is emblematic of the kind of society one inhabits. Prof. Rizzo says that while there have been improvements regarding women’s rights – “girls have much greater access to education, public health has improved over the last few decades with maternal mortality rates and infant mortality rates decreasing, and there is more access to family planning and reproductive health services, more and more women are entering the formal labor force, becoming politicians and involved in civil society organizations” – achieving gender equality in SGBC, the workplace and politics are still major challenges.

 

“Egypt and the Middle East still have low rates of female formal labor force participation and women holding political office with women being constrained by balancing work and family obligations and discrimination based on gender stereotypes that women are too emotionally weak to be managers, politicians or judges, and employers even using paid maternity leave as an excuse not to hire women because they are supposedly "more expensive and unreliable/less committed" than male workers.  And even with the reforms to the personal status laws giving women more options to end their marriages in 2000, they still advantage men over women,” she added.

 

Nevertheless, there is reason for optimism: “I know there are activists, women and men, seasoned and recently mobilized, and people of good will that recognize the injustices caused by gender inequality and are working to end it.”