#HarassMap – Creating an Egypt Free of Sexual Harassment, by Valerie Strassmann

April 29, 2014 0 Comments

According to the Egyptian Center for Women's Rights 2012 Report women in Egypt are exposed to a wide array of violence. They report that while 51.6% of Egyptian women have been subjected
to verbal harassment (the highest percentage was reached in Port Said, 81.6%), approximately 32% have experienced physical harassment as well. However, the United Nations Entity for Gender 
Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women) sets the number even higher. Its report on sexual harassment published in May 2013 reveals that 99.3% of Egyptian women have suffered at least some form of sexual harassment.

“We no longer respect women in Egypt”, asserts Egyptian author Alaa Al-Aswany. Al-Aswany'ssimple sentence reflects his contempt, as well as his despair about sexual harassment in Egypt. In his article published in al-Monitor, Al-Aswany also decries the immense efforts to silence women to not openly discussing their experiences and to keep them from pressing legal charges against their perpetrators. In fact, harassed women are even accused themselves, to be solely responsible for their own fate. Common accusations are “What made you go there?” or “Why did you go to the university dressed like that?” - a cynical way to translate the perpetrator's fault into the victim's responsibility.

Zainab Magdy, an MA student at Cairo University and contributor for Your Middle East, explores a possible explanation for the gravity of the situation. She describes the life of Egyptian women as one of being confined and controlled by socially and culturally constructed circles. Society at large and families on an individual level not only place social, economic and biological demands on women, they also try to control what kind of information women need to know. “As a girl”, she writes, “your whole life is gendered so that in a house there is limited space for you to be anything else.” This lack of space – may it be at home or in public – in which women can operate on their own as subjects beyond all expectations and demands leads to a situation, in which women are left to be perceived as mere objects. Hence, attempts by women to break these circles are sanctioned more aggressively and violently than ever. Within this context sexual harassment serves as a tool of
objectification respectively reproducing the status of women as objects.

Yet, in course of the last years, many initiatives and social movements, ascribed to the goal of creating an Egypt without sexual harassment, have emerged. The first independent initiative was HarassMap, which was launched in 2010. They came up with the brilliant idea to simply create virtual space – by using online and mobile technology – in order to facilitate communication, break the silence and empower victims of sexual harassment to share their experience in public.

During my recent trip to Egypt, I had the chance to meet Noora Flinkman, Communication Manager of HarassMap, for an interview about the organization and sexual harassment in Egypt.

Hello Noor! Nice to meet you and thank you very much for inviting us. Let's talk about HarassMap. What is HarassMap's approach to fight sexual harassment? 
Basically our mission is to end the social acceptability of sexual harassment. All our activities and all our campaigns, everything we do, is directed at influencing bystanders, people who witness sexual harassment happening. We are working on perception change, to encourage people to see it as a crime, so that there is behavior change, so that people start actually intervening when they see it happening and this in the long run, we hope, will decrease harassment because there will be actual social consequences for actually harassing someone. Social consequences that don't exist today. 

So let's talk a little bit more about the Map because it is part of the name and I guess a basic 
pillar of your initiative. So how does the Map work? What's the basic idea behind it? 
Basically we saw the Map as a space where people can talk because this issue has been taboo for a very very long time. People wouldn't even use the word “sexual harassment” in Arabic. So it was initially seen as a space where people can talk freely because it is anonymous and it is easy. We asked people who have been harassed but also witnesses to harassment to report to us what happened and where. They can do that by SMS, online on our website, on facebook, on twitter or by email. All the reports are checked by us and then put on the map. The map is interactive. You can zoom in and out, you can see where sexual harassment has happened, zoom in, click on each report and read it. So it is a kind of open data for everyone. What we realized after getting all these reports – and we had a lot of reports when we first launched – is that these reports are actually like evidence and we try to use it to convince people on the street to start taking action and to prove to 
them that the stereotypes and myths that create this social acceptability of sexual harassment can all be proved wrong by facts and these facts are the reports. 

I read in one of your annual reports that through research and the knowledge based on the 
map, you found out that there is no typical harasser? 
We have stereotypes and kind of myths about the kind of person who is being harassed, about why it happens and about the harasser. And we can prove these all wrong. One of the stereotypes about the harasser is that they are certain kinds of people. So either poor people or only youth or only people who are sexually frustrated because they can't marry for example. What we see from the reports is that kids harass, young boys harass, youth harass, older men harass, fathers with their children around them harass, street cleaners as well as guys in very fancy cars. It is spread all over society! This also goes for the person that gets harassed. There are a lot of stereotypes that only women wearing certain cloths get harassed, only women who walk out late at night or in certain areas get harassed, or women somehow wanted or asked for it. Our report shows that it happens to everyone, at all times, all places and women do not want it. 

As you mentioned before there is also a lot of pressure on women. They are not supposed to talk about sexual harassment or they are even blamed for it. Do you think it is a particular Egyptian problem that women are not given the space to talk about it? 
I don't think it is exceptional for Egypt. I think what is happening here is that somehow a culture of impunity has been established. So no one has been punished, not by the government, not by the courts, but also not by the society. There are no consequences. And I think these are some of the things that have created this kind of normalization process where we no longer see that sexual harassment is a crime because in the past it was seen as a crime! 

Do you think the situation will change due to new laws being introduced as it is being discussed at the moment? 
There are already laws that can be used against sexual harassment and they have been used.  People have been charged. But they aren't used now. Why? Because this is not being seen as a crime by the society and the society includes everyone. It includes the harasser, the bystanders that don't do anything, it includes the police officers, the judges, the policy makers. So even if we have the most perfect law, who is going to implement it if people in general and society don't believe in it. There has to be a two way process. Of course we need laws but we also need to have this kind of change of the societal mind-set because otherwise nothing is going to happen. 

And this is what you are doing as well. You go into communities and you talk with people. How does the community work look like? 
This is actually the biggest bulk of what we do! We have teams now in seventeen governorates all over Egypt who go out in their own neighborhoods. So each team only goes into the neighborhood they know and where they live in. First they get trained and then they go out and talk with the people who spent a lot of time on the street, for example, people who watch cars, who guard buildings, who own cafés, who clean streets, people who create the atmosphere on that street. Of course, they can harass but they can also speak up against it when they see it happening. So we approach these people specifically because they have this power, and we try to convince them that 
sexual harassment is a problem and they should actually start to take responsibility at least for the area that they are in, to start making a kind of non-tolerant zone. We want to create these smaller spaces initially all over neighborhoods, and all over cities and governorates. At some time we hope to reach a stage where the culture tips and people in general start seeing sexual harassment in a different way and start to take action.

Egypt is going through very troubled times. There have been many political changes: first the revolution, then president Morsi being toppled down by a military coup d'état. Does this affect your work? 
Of course it affects our work practically, for example when we are planning a community activity in some governorate and trains don't run anymore or there is a security issue. We also plan our work based on what we think is going to happen. But when it comes to the actual issue [sexual harassment], the biggest change that we have seen is, that it becomes much more part of this kind of bigger discussion which takes place, for example, in the media. Even though it is not always covered in the media in the way we would want it to be, it is discussed more and there is a lot more activism and a lot of people are actually starting to stand up and speak up for themselves. So we get more and more stories of people sharing things like “I did this and this happened and then I did this and this and this”. That is a good thing! But other then that, we just do what we do and what 
happens on the political scene, as much as we can, we try to leave it there. Sexual harassment persists, is still the same; Mubarak, Morsi, the Military – it actually doesn't have a big effect on the issue as it happens or not. It happens, just like that, no matter who is in power. 

As I have seen on your homepage, you have built up quite a big network of different organizations and other activists and volunteers have started own groups, for example, at the universities. You are in touch with other NGOs, the UN Women Department is interested in your initiative – all that seems to be a huge success if you look back how everything began. How do you see the future? Do you think there will be change?
I think, definitely! I mean, otherwise we wouldn't be doing this. Just a few years back when we launched there was no one else working on this issue. Even established women right groups wouldn't work on it and now – like you said – there are so many people, initiatives and organizations on all levels who are taking action and are interested. We just getting started. Things will definitely happen and – I haven't mentioned it yet – we are expanding more and more into schools and universities. We have just started the schools-universities programme this year. Our approach is based on the idea that change will happen actually quite quickly, so we are not planning to sit and do this for the next ten years but we are planning to have change quite quickly.


Diwaniyya Contributor