Women and men turn out to demand a new anti-harassment law be enforced, but some observers think more than a law is needed
By Dominika Maslikowski
Hundreds of people rallied outside the Cairo Opera House on Saturday night to call for an end to sexual harassment and rape after a graphic video emerged last week of a woman stripped and beaten during inaugural celebrations for the country’s new president Abdul Fattah Al Sisi.
Protesters, who had organized through Facebook, held up banners saying “My body, my right” and “Not asking for it” under drawings of women in clothing ranging from a bikini to a niqab. Some called for the death penalty for those accused of mob attacks in Tahrir Square during the celebrations. One woman carried a sign saying, “The ass in harassment is you.” In a smaller rally in Alexandria, dozens gathered across Stanley Bridge to demand the end of sexual harassment and mob attacks.
Organized by Dena Elshabba via Facebook, the protest “Walk Like an Egyptian Woman” was authorized by the Ministry of Interior in accordance with the new protest law and was heavily guarded by police. Elshabba told local media that the rally was to raise awareness of the problem, calling for an amendment to the sexual harassment law that would recognize rape and harassment as two different crimes.
During the Cairo rally, a taxi driver reportedly verbally harassed a female participant and was taken away by police. Although the attendees were mostly women, there were also dozens of men in the crowd who supported the cause. Despite over 25,800 Facebook “likes” by people who said they would attend, considerably fewer showed up in person.
“I attended the rally because this cause needs support,” says Ahmed Fathy, a participant in Saturday’s rally, adding that he had hoped more people would have attended, given the Facebook support. “This time is the best [time] for making a change regarding sexual harassment, especially after the graphic video that went viral recently and the newly passed law.”
Fathy wants to keep the pressure on the government to enforce the law, and says the media plays a vital role in bringing about change by educating the masses. Noting that far too often the stories fade away, he adds, “I think this time there is a better chance for making change … I think more protests on the ground should make sure this happens.”
Saturday’s protest was supported by Harassmap and I Saw Harassment, two initiatives aiming to put an end to the epidemic. Controversy erupted, however, when the National Council for Women (NCW) joined the team of coordinators, causing several anti-harassment groups to pull out of the rally. The council, founded by former first lady Suzanne Mubarak, has been criticized for ignoring previous assaults or blaming them on various political groups.
“For the past three years we have been working on the issue of mob sexual assault providing [the NCW] with numbers and facts, while they kept denying it and claiming they were individual incidents or organized by [the Muslim Brotherhood] for example,” said Salma El Tarzi on the event’s page. “Even the last incident that was filmed [and] they issued a statement saying it was an individual incident meant to sabotage the celebrations. The council is a governmental entity that is responsible for the situation we are in.”
Days before the most recent sexual assaults in Tahrir, outgoing interim President Adly Mansour issued a law increasing penalties for sexual harassment. Campaigners and activists call the law a first step in tackling the problem but worry whether it will be strictly enforced. Some are also concerned that the may not be the full solution to the problem.
“I believe the law they passed a week ago is like a pain killer and not really solving the problem,” says Ramy Bassily, a senior associate at Kosheri, Rashed & Riad law firm. He has also helped teach a human rights law class at the American University in Cairo. “We need to enforce the old laws … they just issued the law as propaganda to show they are doing something.”
The lawyer does note the new law addresses verbal harassment where previous laws did not. “That’s the good side of the law, but at the same time I believe the law isn’t enough because criminalizing verbal harassment is a double-edge sword. Women will feel secure, but at the same time the law is not that concrete and doesn’t define what verbal harassment is,” says Bassily, explaining how the law’s vagueness will work against its implementation.
Bassily says the real solution to sexual harassment requires more than a law. “Enforcing the law itself in this situation will not be enough, because you cannot have a police officer walking with every woman on the street, so you need to educate the men and make them understand [harassment] is something they should not do.”
On Saturday, the prosecutor-general referred 13 men to trial on charges of sexually assaulting women on June 3 and 8. The defendants face life in prison for several charges, including abduction, sexual assault, physical torture and attempted murder and rape.
Al Sisi had visited one of the victims from the graphic sexual assault video in the hospital, a gesture many women view as a step forward in combating the problem. He has also ordered a ministerial committee to be formed to look into ways of addressing the decades-old issue.
Human Rights Watch released a statement Friday saying the committee was a “positive step,” but that Al Sisi “needs to be judged by what actually results.” The New York-based organization criticized the country for having no specific law dealing with domestic violence, and an outdated penal code with a narrow definition of rape.
According to a 2013 United Nations report, more than 99 percent of females surveyed reported that they have experienced some form of sexual harassment, ranging from ogling to rape. The issue made headlines during Eid al-Fitr in 2006, when gangs of young men attacked women in Downtown Cairo for hours, and again following the January 25 Revolution, which saw groups like Tahrir Bodyguards formed to protect women during street protests.
This story has been updated with Ramy Basilly’s full name and job title.