EMAN MORSI: You get people just saying things like hey sweetie, hey honey… Or just insults.
Eman Morsi is an Egyptian woman in her twenties.
EMAN MORSI: Another type of street harassment is when they just brush across. And that kinds of tends to be a bit intimidating. There’s also when they grope you and stuff. I think pretty much many women went through that but we don’t really talk about that.
That’s why a crowd of young Egyptians gathered last week at a cultural center in Cairo. We all know that sexual harassment is a wide-spread phenomenon, online activist Sara El-Demerdash told the audience.
The kids – many with laptops on their knees – were being introduced to a new website that hopes to help change that.
The site allows women to send emails or SMS messages reporting harassment. The information is used to create an online map of harassment in Cairo: HarassMap. Rebecca Chiao is with the HarassMap team.
Rebecca Chiao: “The goal of our effort actually is not just to create a map. The goal is to change the social acceptability of harassment. So, the map is the first step.”
Chiao is an American who’s lived in Egypt for many years, working on women’s rights. She and three Egyptian colleagues created HarassMap. The online map will help identify harassment hotspots, says Chiao.
Rebecca Chiao: “And after identifying them, we’ll go to the communities in groups of volunteers and speak to people with roots in community, you know, shop owners, and use the map to show them: this is what’s happening in your neighborhood.”
Many Egyptians were shocked and embarrassed a few years ago when groups of young men were caught on cell phone cameras chasing and molesting women. Some here explain harassment as the result of sexual and economic frustration. In this view, the growing number of young jobless men, who can’t afford to marry, is the problem. Religious conservatives blame sexual images in the media and a lack of moral values. They suggest the best defense against harassment is to wear the veil.
Nihad Al Qumsan heads the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights. A 2008 survey the center carried out showed that about 80 percent of women in Egypt have faced some form of harassment.
NIHAD AL QUMSAN: “When they’re speaking generally, men will say that harassment is the result of women wearing provocative clothes. But when they filled out our survey they admitted they also harass women who are veiled. The men try to find an excuse for their behaviour, but most women in Egypt are veiled. And anyway a woman is free to wear what she wants.”
Despite the survey, the alarming reports and the videos that circulated online, some, including Egypt’s first lady Suzanne Mubarak, have denied harassment is common. A law against sexual harassment has been discussed in parliament, but not passed. So another goal of HarassMap is simply to prove how frequent harassment is, and to push the authorities to do more about it. Omar El-Sayeed was also at the HarassMap event last week.
OMAR EL_SAYEED: “Go and write sexual harassment in Egypt or in Arab world on Google, write it in Arabic, and you’re going to see how many people are talking on blogs, and websites. Like the Harassmap dot org.”
Indeed, Rebecca Chiao says the trial site is already receiving reports and thousands of visits.