Definition of sexual harassment continues to face uncertainty, awaits laws to be enforced

Sarah El-Sheikh
10 Min Read

Though harassment has been a long-standing issue in the Egyptian community, over the past two years the topic was submerged by others. It has now resurfaced stirred by the recent “on the run scandal,” where a stranger approached a girl on the street and repeatedly asked her to go for a coffee together despite the fact that the girl repeatedly turned down his offer.

When the girl used her mobile phone camera to document the incident, she faced waves of criticism that put her in the position of the perpetrator and forced her to defend herself.

Social media users both females and males viewed the girl as an attention seeker for publishing the video especially, that she has published a second video for another harasser.

The video quickly became the top trending story in Egypt, with thousands of Egyptians debating whether the man’s actions amounted to sexual harassment. What is more to the story is that they claimed that she faced harassment solely for the way she was dressed; however, the videos did not show how she was dressed. Users kept on blaming her and circulating her personal photos and judging her.

The lawyer of the harasser Mahmoud Suleiman said that he intended to submit a lawsuit to the prosecutor general accusing the girl of defaming his client for publishing the video.

The case is somehow similar to the incident of TV presenter Reham Saeed in Egypt who has been jailed for ‘violating the privacy’ of a girl interviewed on her show to speak about the harassment she faced. Saeed wanted to prove that the girl deserved to be harassed for the way she was dressed.

The case, publicly known as the “shopping mall victim,” was reopened after the girl was subjected to a second assault by the same man after his release from jail on previous sexual harassment charges.

Women face verbal and physical harassment on a daily basis in Egypt, especially, on streets and in public transportation. A Thomson Reuters survey ranked Egypt “as the most dangerous megacity for women,” saying that the treatment of women in the Egyptian capital has worsened since the 2011 uprising seeking social change.

During the protests known as Cabinet Clashes in 2011, a young woman was dragged and beaten. Instead of pointing fingers against the perpetrator, the girl was blamed for going there in the first place. Salafist preachers took it upon themselves to place responsibility on the girl herself.

This was not the first-time tables were turned, but it was a prominent point to kick start a trend of victim blaming that has since continued, especially against harassment victims.

Assaults increase during public gatherings, such as on holidays or protests, where there have been numerous accounts of gang assaults. According to a study by the United Nations in 2013, 99.3% of Egyptian women and girls surveyed reported having been sexually harassed.

Harassment is not only in the streets; a Cairo University media professor was referred to an investigation over sexual harassment allegations last year after a voice recording for him harassing a female students went viral.

Definition of harassment in Egyptian law

In several foreign laws the definition of sexual harassment is an undesirable behaviour based on gender, race, disability, age, religion, sexual orientation or any other act protected by law.

Harassment is an intentional behaviour that violates the dignity, freedom, and privacy of the individual and creates a frightening, hostile or degrading environment for that individual.

The Egyptian law to combat harassment did not include all forms of harassment, and did not sort all type of harassment, it just limited it to punishment for any sexual or pornographic insinuations or gestures, whether verbally or physically, and this would also be applicable on means of telecommunications or mobile apps or online social platforms. The law further punishes harassing the harasser.

The penalties are new to the law, as prior to 2014, there were no direct articles punishing sexual harassment. The new amendments escalated the penalties for any form of verbal or nonverbal sexual harassment or abuse in public or private areas, to at least six months imprisonment and a fine of between EGP 3,000 and EGP 5,000.

The amendments were triggered by a mass sexual assault on 8 June during celebrations in Tahrir Square for President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi’s inauguration. A video uploaded on YouTube, showing a stripped woman being sexually assaulted by a group of men, went viral on social media, prompting the government’s response.

Harassment rates are increasing in Egypt, girls are gradually losing their safety in the streets. Harassers do not differ between veiled or unveiled or face-covered females.

The Harassmap initiative presents forms of sexual harassment faced by women in the streets which include intrusive leering of the body or eyes, facial expressions such as sneezing, winking, and mouth opening, comments on the body, tracking a person by car or waiting for her outside place of work, home or at his car, asking for sexual suggestive comments or inviting her to dinner or suggestions that are sexually explicit or implied.

Moreover, also insisting on walking with a person or delivering her by car or requesting a phone number despite her refusal, close proximity, showing intimate parts of the body, and threating of assault or rape.

Due to debates over the definition of harassment, a number of  legal experts called for specific definitions of sexual harassment to be added in the law and providing punishment for each type.

In a statement on Monday, Al-Azhar rejected the justification of a woman’s dress code as a reason of woman’s harassment, stressing that verbal and physical harassment is not religiously permissible and is inappropriate behaviour.

Al-Azhar called for the activation of laws, which criminalise harassment and punish it and also called upon concerned institutions to raise awareness of the types of harassment and their dangers, and to avoid their destructive effects on morality and modesty, especially, the harassment of children.

Mai Saleh, a feminist working at the New Women non-governmental organisation, told Daily News Egypt, that the feminist organisation is currently drafting a bill to amend harassment penalties to include all its forms.

Commenting on the video to capture harassment, she said that prosecution always disregards complaints of harassment due to lack of proof. Videos and photos do not expose victims, but to give them the right to prove their claim.

“We look forward to the suggestion of adding visual proofs in legislature to defend the rights of harassment victims,” she said.

Official reports claimed in the past two years that harassment rates have decreased during feast occasions, which previously used to face high harassment rates, however, many females are still complaining of harassment on social media platforms.

Saleh explained that these reports are not necessarily incorrect, as she believes that security presence has to be stronger during in streets during feasts to deter harassers from harassing women.

Nagla Al-Adly, director of complaints office at the National Council for Women, said that police observed 15 cases of harassment during Eid Al-Adha, which marks an increase from the previous Eid.

Compared to harassment rates in recent years, in 2016 a number of 174 sexual harassment cases had been filed in the Cairo and Giza governorates during Eid Al-Adha and during the 2015 Eid Al-Adha, the “I Saw Harassment” initiative reported 447 verbal and physical sexual harassment incidents. It also accused security personnel of sexually harassing females during the Eid celebrations.

Earlier this week, a video capturing the moment tens of men sexually harassed three Egyptian women in one of the country’s streets went viral on social media. Also, a husband who was defending his ‘harassed’ wife on an Alexandria beach was killed on Friday, by a frequent harasser.

In past weeks, several hashtags on social media spoke against harassment following the Fifth Settlement incident. Notably, there have been previous social media initiatives and awareness campaigns in Egypt that aimed at condemning sexual violence against women, demanding that the rule of law be applied, and encouraging women to speak up and create support networks.

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