Combating sexual harassment, one book at a time

Following shocking statistics on sexual harassment in Egypt presented in a recent report by a local women’s rights group, different groups as well as the national authorities have launched initiatives to battle the issue. The latest trend appears to be books.
Egypt Harrasment article

CAIRO, August 20, 2009 (MENASSAT)- Egypt has gained notoriety for being one of the worst harassment places in the Arab world, yet few efforts to deal with the issue have been undertaken by the government in the past. It wasn’t until the Cairo-based women’s rights group, Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights (ECWR), issued a report last year describing sexual harassment in Egypt as a “social cancer” and calling on the government to introduce a law that criminalizes sexual harassment, that the authorities started taking notice.

The highly publicized 2008 report presented some rather shocking statistics on street harassment in Egyptian cities, claiming that 83 percent of all Egyptian women have been exposed to sexual harassment and 98 percent of all foreign women. Observing Islamic dress code, argued the report, is no deterrent.

Nahed Shehata, Program Manager at ECWR told MENASSAT that the center has been campaigning over the past five years to raise awareness of sexual harassment among Egyptian society through various measures, including public awareness campaigns and programs.

She believes her organization’s campaigning on the issue has helped to bring noticeable change in the mindsets of many Egyptians, as well as in the streets.

“Before, many young men thought sexual harassment was only rape. The woman often thought she was the reason for the harassment. She blamed herself. The culture of society has changed,” said Shehata.

Of high importance, continues Shehata, is the notion that the government has started to recognize that there is a problem of sexual harassment in Egypt. Up until ECWR’s report, the national authorities largely denied claims that sexual harassment was taking place in the country.

In a notorious 2006 incident in downtown Cairo, a number of Egyptian bloggers filmed  a mob of young men attacking a group of women, tearing their clothes off. But little attention was paid to the incident by the Egyptian authorities, who brushed the incident under the carpet.

“Sexual Harassment: Causes and Solutions”

Three years later, following ECWR’s groundbreaking report and the landmark sentencing of a man to jail time for sexually harassing a woman in a Cairo street, it seems that the authorities are finally moving on the subject.

One pioneering initiative is the distribution of a government-issued informational booklet among imams at 50,000 mosques across Egypt. 

The booklet, entitled “Sexual Harassment: Causes and Solutions,” is a self-publication by Egypt’s Ministry of Endowments and aims to explain and address the issue of sexual harassment from a religious perspective.

The booklet reportedly presents five different causes for sexual harassment, including psychological emptiness and low religious practicing. Solutions in the booklet include, “greater adherence to religious and family issues and better law enforcement.”

"When the imams realize that sexual harassment is a social hazard, and they understand the reasons behind it, then they start spreading the message," Salem Geleil, Egypt's Deputy Minister of Endowments and the booklet's editor told TIME Magazine. "Egyptians are very religious ... So when you approach a cause from a religious point of view, the response is very strong.”

While “welcoming the initiative” from the ministry, Shehata remains skeptical of what she believes are a number of shortcomings in the pamphlet.

For example, Shehata is not happy over the notion that the pamphlet–– just like a number of previous campaigns on sexual harassment–– seeks to place blame on the victim of harassment in certain instances.

The Ministry’s book, she says, stipulates that the girl should dress properly in order to avoid harassment. That, in Shehata’s opinion does not hold, since a woman’s way of dressing does not make a difference to harassers.

“You can wear a short-sleeved t-shirt or a long-sleeved shirt. Or a full-face veil. It does not make a difference to the harasser,” she sighed. “But overall, it [the booklet] is a good initiative. The government is realizing that there is a problem.”

“Very Important”

ECWR itself has taken quite a different path than the authorities in its quest to raise social awareness of sexual harassment among Egyptian society. Withstanding the religious angle, the centers latest initiative is an informative children’s games booklet called “Very Important” and an accompanying animated film that teaches children about the dangers of sexual harassment and how they can protect themselves from it. It teaches children to be trustful of others while being careful and aware.

“This book teaches the children about the differences between a bad look and a good look, between a good way of talking and a bad way of talking,” said Shehata.

Readers of “Very Important” follow the central character Salma in her everyday activities, through her daily interactions with her family and her experiences walking on the streets outside the family home.

Shehata believes it is of utter importance to start educating young children about societal issues at an early age.

But unfortunately, Egyptian schools currently offer very little education on sexual harassment. Shehata hopes this will change in the coming years.

“People must know it is haram”

What then are the solutions to sexual harassment, in Shehata’s opinion?

First, she says, there must be a law that criminalizes sexual harassment. ECWR has already submitted a  legislative draft proposal to the Egyptian Parliament for review.

Secondly, she believes there should be a special division within law enforcement that handles complaints of sexual harassment. And the complaints should be taken seriously. Because over the past years, several reports have surfaced about Egyptian police officers refusing to fill out reports on alleged harassers and taking complaints from harassment victims.

But perhaps most importantly is changing the way Egyptian society thinks about sexual harassment.

“People must know that it is ‘haram,’” Shehata concluded.