It is time to treat sexual assault as violence, not harassment
By Kate Durham
This is not a column about sexual harassment. This column is about words. How we use them, consciously and unconsciously, to make a very big problem seem smaller. Consider:
Last week, as crowds in Tahrir Square celebrated the election of President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi, a person was violently, physically assaulted in a mob attack. Video footage posted online showed the person stripped naked with large welts or scrapes on their buttocks, as police attempted to escort the victim to a nearby ambulance.
How local media is talking about this very real incident:
“A video of a woman who was sexually assaulted and left naked after a mob harassment in Tahrir Square Sunday went viral […] The video […] contained explicit scenes of the harassed woman’s naked body.” – excerpts from The Cairo Post’s article “Mob sexual harassment in Tahrir amid weak security: I Saw Harassment” article.
“Egyptian police have arrested seven men for sexually assaulting women at celebrations marking President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi’s inauguration […] prosecutors had been asked to investigate the attack, the official said, alleging the seven were also involved in three other cases of sexual harassment.” – excerpts from Al Arabeya’s “Seven Arrested after Egypt sex assault video” article.
“With the increase of transparency through videos like last night’s horrific footage, it has become increasingly difficult to sweep such issues of sexual harassment under the rug.” —from the Egyptian Streets article “Woman stripped, beaten, sexually assaulted at Tahrir Square.”
Most media reports I have read described the events in the video as a sexual assault, and I have no problem with that. I have a big problem, however, with how freely the terms “sexual assault” and “sexual harassment” are being interchanged.
I partially blame the widely quoted 2013 UN Women study, which found that 99% of all women in Egypt have experienced sexual harassment in one form or another. As a woman who has lived in Egypt for over 14 years, I completely believe the 99% part. Under the title of “sexual harassment,” however, the UN included everything from ogling to rape. That’s a very wide spectrum, and there is a point on that spectrum when behavior stops being unwanted attention and crosses over into violence.
Violence against a person is a crime. Man or woman, you do not want to be the victim at the center of that mob. At its very core, this is a physical assault, and very few would try to make excuses for it or blame the victim.
Sexual harassment, on the other hand, is constantly being explained away. ‘Boys will be boys.’ ‘She shouldn’t have worn that outfit.’ ‘Men are sexually repressed because they are too poor to get married.’ ‘The youth are watching immoral foreign films and TV shows.’ ‘She shouldn’t be out alone at that hour.’
Pay no attention to those studies that show that clothing and economic status have nothing to do with sexual harassment. There are still many people who insist it’s the woman’s fault, society’s fault, everyone else’s fault or anyone but the actual harasser.
Sexual harassment is a serious, long-standing problem in Egypt. Egypt Today’s first coverage of the issue was in 1996, a full decade before society at large would even admit it existed. It took blogger Wael Abbas posting a video of a mob assault on a veiled girl in 2006 to force the public to openly talk about it.
Now we can’t stop talking about it. A Google search for “Egypt ‘sexual harassment’” brings up 1.18 million hits; a Google news search has over 17,000.
But as long as we keep talking about sexual assault in the same context — indeed in the same breath — as “sexual harassment,” we are diminishing the crime committed. As long as we lump violent acts like rape and mob attacks on women in the same category as catcalls and obscene gestures, we give the deniers more chances to explain away the offense.
Noora Flinkman, communication manager for the Harassmap initiative, told CNN, “Every day sexual harassment is a social epidemic affecting everyone, every day. Mob violence is an extreme form of this act that has been normalized by society.”
Harassmap documents self-reported incidents of sexual harassment on an interactive map, and like the UN Women survey, includes everything from “facial expressions” to “rape/sexual assault” in its spectrum.
For those trying to eliminate sexual harassment, there is a strong argument for broadly defining the term. Dr. Helen Rizzo, a sociology professor at the American University in Cairo, has worked with the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights (ECWR) and with Harassmap on sexual harassment issues. When the ECWR first started interviewing women about their experiences, the women reported problems with all the behaviors now included in harassment’s spectrum.
“It’s like a cumulative effect, [signs that] when you’re out on the street you’re treated like a piece of meat,” Rizzo told me. “Even these minor things contribute to a hostile environment for women on the street.”
And that is true. I would be lying if I said that lewd expressions, obscene comments, and boys attempting to cop a feel didn’t bother me. Relative to how long I’ve lived here, it hasn’t happened often, but when it does, it totally ruins your day. And I, like every other woman I know here, want it to stop.
But I cannot and will not try to equate those experiences to that of my former colleague Hania Moheeb, who was a victim of a mob assault in Tahrir on January 25, 2013. Moheeb recounted her 30-minute ordeal to local and international media.
“They stripped me – their hands were all over my body, violating my intimate parts. I thought I was going to die because they were very aggressive,” she told the BBC in October 2013. “At a certain point I think I fainted because one of them was trying to strangle me with a scarf that was around my neck.”
That’s not harassment. That’s assault. But because it is a sexual assault, Moheeb and other victims who choose to speak out have to deal with the social stigma that treats the victim like a criminal.
As an editor, I would normally argue that context is crucial for our in-depth reporting. But while longstanding issues of sexual harassment here cannot be ignored, it is all too often dismissed. If we start calling out these mob assaults for what they are — acts of criminal violence — maybe we’ll find the political and social will to stop them. et