“There were so many surrounding me that I could not see the sky,” recalls Hania Moheeb, an Egyptian journalist turned sexual harassment awareness activist. She is speaking of 25 January 2013, which marked the second anniversary of the Egyptian revolution.
“They took off my trousers, but I was luckier than another woman who was raped that night,” she adds. “Other guys helped me to escape.”
On that day, several women were sexually harassed, including a woman who was penetrated with a sharp object, according to reports by several human rights organisations. Moheeb and seven other women filed an official complaint and are pursuing the matter legally. “We know it will probably lead to nothing, but we have to try every possible way,” she said.
Moheeb stunned Egyptians when, a few days after the incident, she appeared on TV show Akher Al-Nahar with her husband taking about the harassment she experienced. “I think my husband’s appearance with me and his support shocked many people,” she says. “I got lots of positive messages following the TV segment, particularly from women.”
Her vocal approach drew the attention of several women’s rights organizations. “The National Council for Women (NCW) recommended me to attend the 57th session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) in New York,” she said. “The head of the NCW Mervat Tallawy encouraged me to go and the NCW’s head of the women’s complaints department Fatma Khafagi introduced me to the representatives of Equality Now over there.”
Equality Now, an organisation founded in 1992 which advocates for women’s rights and operates in 160 countries, asked Moheeb to write a testimonial of her harassment and invited her to become their campaign spokesperson in Egypt.
“Khafagi told us about Hania, who was very open about being harassed,” says Suad Abu-Dayyeh, Equality Now’s MENA expert. “We always try and find a case and focus on it, highlighting the effect of such violations on an individual’s life.”
Equality Now cooperates with local NGOs and movements to campaign inside individual countries, as well as with several international organisations such as the United Nations. They have been operating in Egypt since 2008 and have several partners including El-Nadeem, Al-Karama Network and the New Women Foundation.
On 11 April, a virtual campaign was launched by Equality Now calling upon President Mohamed Morsi and Prime Minister Hesham Qandil to take “concrete” steps to stop sexual violence against women. Their petition gained over 1,000 signatures in its first week, according to Abu-Dayyeh. Such petitions and reports are sent to Morsi and Qandil as well as other governmental officials and human rights organisations.
“Women’s issues are always marginalised after upheavals and wars because the focus is on the economy,” says Yasmeen Hassan, Global Director of Equality Now. “Our aim is to elevate such issues to an international level.”
Hassan believes that international advocacy can play an important part in helping women improve their situation. “We embarrass countries claiming that women’s rights have improved,” explains Hassan. “We file our reports prior to their meetings with European and UN member states, for example.” This forces such governments to be accountable for their actions on an international level.
Criticising governments is possible for Equality Now because the organisation avoids governmental funding in order to ensure its autonomy, “which is why we are a small organization with only 25 full time employees who are mostly lawyers, and we depend on individual funding as well as other foundations.”
Sexual harassment has become a widespread phenomenon in Egypt with the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women publishing a report on 28 April 2013 suggesting that 99.3% of Egyptian women have experienced some form of sexual harassment.
“For female political activists and journalists, it is worse because they are targeted,” says Moheeb, who believes that the sexual harassment she experienced was premeditated. “They were too many and too organized to be random. Some even pretended to help me while they were trying to take off my clothes.”
Hassan agrees that sexual violence is currently used in Egypt “to keep women from participating in political life, which is why we have to get them to talk about such violations to hold governments accountable”.
Targeting female activists has raised questions regarding their participation in demonstrations and other functions. Moheeb says that such violence will only result in greater participation.
“The revolution helped many to break through this barrier of fear and such actions will only drive women to take to the streets in greater numbers than ever,” she says.