Recent reports of sexual harassment in Egypt have placed the issue under an intense spotlight, following news of a 22-year-old man who harassed more than 100 female university students and allegedly raped some of them.
Egypt has long struggled to combat the problem, with several high-profile cases bringing it to the fore.
According to research on sexual violence against women by the Thomson Reuters Foundation in 2017, Cairo ranked worst for women’s safety, after New Delhi, Karachi and Kinshasa. The list included 19 major cities with over 10 million people.
Since the 2011 revolution which ushered in a new government, women in the capital are often subjected to harassment on a daily basis. There is a lack of public order in Egypt’s streets, and a subtle acceptance of sexual and verbal abuse of women, especially during holidays and public gatherings.
However, during the past three years, the number of sexual harassment incidents declined after the introduction of a 2014 law designed to deter harassers. Despite this, a video earlier this year showcasing sexual harassment caused uproar on social media.
The video showed dozens of young men verbally and physically harassing a 22-year-old woman on Al-Gomhoria Street in Mansoura. After she screamed, a number of young men rushed to protect her, pushed her into a car and fled the scene.
The incident shocked social media users. The Ministry of Interior later announced it had arrested seven men who allegedly took part in the attack.
The victim of the assault said: “I was walking down the street and was shocked to see men taking out their mobile phones to photograph me and my friend. I continued walking quickly and entered a nearby store to call my family. I found the men gathering in front of the shop.”
She said that the owner of the store forced her out. When she left, the men surrounded her, held her hands and ripped off her clothes. The men got into a shouting match with onlookers. A young man came to the rescue in his car to save her from the attackers.
“I arrived home unable to speak. I was afraid and did not know how to react until I found the videos on Facebook,” she said.
According to Egyptian lawyer Abdel-Hamid Rahim, a recent law to discourage sexual harassment on the streets stipulates imprisonment for one year and a fine ranging from 5,000 Egyptian pounds ($308) to 10,000 Egyptian pounds, with the possibility of an increased penalty if the harasser is a major culprit or took part in group harassment using a weapon. In such cases the penalty could include a prison sentence of five years and a fine of 50,000 Egyptian pounds.
Some say the increase in harassment can be traced back to an absence of religion among youth. On Friday, the Egyptian Dar Al-Iftaa, an Islamic advisory body, described sexual harassment as a crime and a major sin.
Samia Qadri, a professor of sociology at Ain Shams University, said that society is “heading in the wrong direction” in dealing with the issue. She said many people blame young women for sexual harassment because of the way they dress.
“We already have laws to fight this phenomenon, but we do not deal with it strictly. These laws need to be activated and applied more widely, in the sense that they do not allow anyone to escape from punishment. Moving forward in applying them strictly will decrease the frequency of this issue,” Qadri said.
The most notorious harassment incident in Egypt took place in the 1990s when a disabled girl was assaulted in Al-Ataba Square, causing a huge public outcry.