For years, 20-year-old Hossam Atef’s approach to Egypt’s sexual harassment problem has been personal. “I upheld my values in my own life,” he said. But, after a while, story after story of catcalls and groping began to grate on him. He realised he needed to “go bigger”.
A photographer by trade, he started snapping pictures of women in situations that may be considered taboo in Egyptian culture: sitting down for a drink at a coffee shop, playing backgammon among shisha-smoking men and kicking a football around in the street.
“I am trying to assert that a woman should have the freedom to do what she wants, as long as she is not hurting anyone,” he said. “She should be able to play in the street, and eat, and do whatever.”
Because of high rates of sexual harassment, discriminatory laws and patriarchal attitudes, gender experts recently declared Egypt the worst Arab country to be a woman. More than 99% of Egyptian women have experienced some form of sexual harassment, according to a 2013 study from the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women. Just 63% of women are literate.
Atef, a self-taught photographer from Boulaq Al-Dakrur, doesn’t stage the photos for the ongoing project, which he calls “Freedom Carnival”. Instead, he arranges street fairs where he invites women to come and break free of culturally constructed gender barriers.
It has ruffled a few feathers.
While they were shooting photos, “people would try to make us leave,” he said. “For example, they would object to a girl sitting in an ahwa and say, ‘We don’t allow girls to sit here.'”
But Atef wasn’t dissuaded. He feels strict gender roles “ostracise” women from mainstream society, which reflects poorly on the country as a whole.
“We only see women with lust – as pieces of meat,” he said. “We don’t see a woman as just another human being you can talk to.”
Through his art, he hopes to change that.