I was heading to my friend’s wedding, so I took a taxi asking the driver to take me to Mansoureya, a neighbourhood that I had never been to before. While we were on our way, he took a sharp right going through an unpaved dark alley, just before opening his zipper and starting to touch himself saying: “I’m very affectionate, and I will please you.” This is one of the stories told at Banat El-Nas, a recent documentary that tackles the issue of sexual harassment in a new way.
This story is one of many similar ones that happen to Egyptian women on a daily basis. Banat El-Nas (The People’s Girls) is an independent documentary that displays the lives of Egyptian women in a new way.
When Colette Ghunim, 24, came to Egypt to study Arabic, it didn’t take her long to realise that sexual harassment is a severe crisis that affects every woman in Egypt. With the help of Tinne Van Loon, who is a documentary photographer, they decided to together investigate the reasons for the way women are pestered and aggravated daily.
“In Egypt, every time a woman walks outside, no matter what she’s wearing, a large majority of men stare, unabashedly,” said Van Loon. “They scan her entire body as if she is a mere object, not a valued human being. The high frequency of stares makes it the most common form of sexual harassment.”
From her point of view, this type of sexual harassment—men’s stares—has become so commonplace here that people in Egypt have stopped considering it a type of sexual harassment, even though “it violates women’s ability to feel safe while walking in the streets”.
However, stares are only one type of harassment women face in Egypt. “In addition to stares, verbal and physical harassment are rampant throughout Cairo. Whether on the street, in a microbus, or in the metro, the issue of sexual harassment exists for all women, Egyptian or foreign,” Van Loon said.
The film received the Ambassador Award at the Rhode Island International Film Festival, with judges finding the film inspiring and capable of facilitating communication and cultural understanding. The film was also accepted into the Arab Film Festival in San Fransisco
The film digs deep to unlock the reasons for harassment. Through the documentary, Collete and Tinne aimed to understand the reasons that would lead a man to verbally harass a girl walking down the street. This includes investigating his social background and beliefs.
“We decided to investigate two important questions: who is to blame, and how women should fight back against harassment. To do so, we interviewed both victims of harassment as well as harassers themselves to better understand why this epidemic is occurring,” said Collette.
Throughout the film, the audience listens to men defend their actions and behaviour saying “they can’t hold themselves while seeing girls wearing extremely tight and revealing cloths”. At the same time, the camera follows one of them to his home capturing him sitting with his family while they speak about their point of view on the issue.
“Our biggest challenge was filming families inside their homes. In Egypt, homes are very private spaces. Because we had a large, all-male film crew except for us two, it was difficult for families to let us interview female family members inside the house, she added
For a whole year, the two girls worked on documenting every side of harassment, including girls who stood up against it.
In a personal experience, Collete was walking down the street in Eid, Egypt’s highest season of sexual harassment, using a hidden camera to see what happens when she speaks directly to harassers asking them to stop following her.
“Filming Banat El-Nas, we realised the immense impact the issue has on all levels of society, and how the strongly-engrained pattern of victim-blaming often prevents women from speaking out,” Collete explained.
In the end, both girls agreed that violence against women is a global issue. “Women worldwide struggle with inequality at different levels, so unfortunately we think this will be a lifelong struggle, but we are hopeful that the situation will improve. We are hopeful that with more women standing up for their rights, it will create a lasting social change in their favour.” Collete concluded.