Adly Mansour introduces anti-sexual harassment law that many fear is not enough to bring about necessary change
Outgoing interim President Adly Mansour issued a batch of laws days before leaving office, including a decree that increased penalties for sexual harassment; however, many activists and commentators said the new law is only the first step in tackling the problem and it must be strictly enforced if it is to bring about results.
On Thursday, two days before leaving office, Mansour passed a law that criminalizes sexual harassment in private and public spaces. The law imposes jail terms of at least six months and fines of up to LE 5,000 for those found guilty of sexually harassment in public or over the internet and through mobile phones. Those found guilty of unwanted sexual contact would face harsher punishments including a minimum of one year in prison and fines of up to LE 20,000.
The law was good news for women living in Egypt. According to a 2013 United Nations report, more than 99 percent of females surveyed reported that they have experienced some form of sexual harassment. Egypt’s National Council of Women issued a statement saying the decree “reflects the keenness of the state and the interest in the protection of women and preservation of their rights.”
Others argued that tougher penalties would do little to change a culture that often pins the blame for sexual harassment on women and shames those who report such incidents to the police.
“Egypt criminalizes sexual harassment [for the] first time. But will it be reinforced on the streets? That’s the big question,” wrote Egyptian Women Sunday on Twitter, an account for a website that aims to amplify women’s voices and reduce false stereotypes.
“Great way forward! Not there yet though,” wrote Faryda Hussein on the Facebook news page Egyptian Streets. “Women still need to dare to speak out, feel and believe they are indeed [the] victim and not [the] cause and their case needs to be treated justly (with care and respect for privacy) for proper enforcement.”
Before getting excited about the new law, Egyptians should remember that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) passed a similar law in March 2011, wrote blogger Ahmed Awadalla on Twitter Saturday. Awadalla blogged in 2011 that “to be able to overcome a societal problem, we need to handle its underlying causes. All those handling those crimes need to be sensitized about it and fully aware of its implications.”
One of the first reported incidents of sexual harassment in Egypt came during Eid al-Fitr in 2006, when gangs of youths attacked women walking alone in downtown Cairo and continued the attacks for hours. Attacks spiked during protests at the start of the January 25 Revolution and made international headlines when South African reporter Lara Logan was assaulted by a gang of men on February 11, the day Mubarak resigned. Groups like OpAntiSH and Tahrir Bodyguards worked to protect women during street protests.
More recently, on March 16, a female student was attacked and sexually harassed by a mob at Cairo University. The incident gained notoriety when University President Gaber Nassar blamed the attackers as well as the woman for wearing “inappropriate clothing” that he claimed had provoked the mob.
Columnists like Alaa Al Aswany have attributed the phenomenon to the influence of fundamentalist Wahhabi thinking that was introduced to the country in the 1980s and objectifies a woman’s body.
While Mansour’s new laws may be a good step forward, those who have worked on anti-harassment campaigns for years say that society must also change how it perceives sexual harassment to bring about deeper and more lasting social change.
“The biggest issue is still the cultural one: society doesn’t see it as a crime,” Eba’a El-Tamimi, a spokesperson for the anti-harassment group HarassMap, told The Guardian newspaper. “And police often tend to sympathize with harassers or be harassers themselves. Even when someone manages to get to the police station to report harassment, she will still encounter resistance from police officers, who will try to deter her from going through with filing the police report.”
“I don’t think sexual harassment will be properly part of the government agenda unless society changes. The core issue is that society does not see it as a crime,” continued El-Tamimi.