Young and old affected: Getting a woman to file the complaint is difficult because there is always huge pressure on her to keep silent, say researchers. Photo: AP
Cairo: Egypt has criminalised sexual harassment for the first time, putting in place sentences of up to five years for those found guilty of a crime that is so prevalent a recent UN study found it affects 99 per cent of Egyptian women.
Cutting across all sectors of Egyptian society, sexual harassment is accepted by many men as a normal part of life, Egyptian women say, and those who wear the veil are just as affected as those who do not.
Defining harassment as any sexual or pornographic suggestion through words, signs or acts, the decree issued by outgoing president Adly Mansour removes the previously vague wording attached to the law and provides for a minimum six-month jail term and fines of 3000 Egyptian pounds ($45).
The United Nations survey, released a year ago, found 99.3 per cent of Egyptian women had been sexually harassed and 91 per cent felt unsafe on the streets because of the high levels of harassment.
Security forces were reluctant to come to a woman’s aid when she was being harassed, the study found, and in the nearly 20 per cent of cases where police or security officers did intervene, they reportedly scolded, mocked or harassed the victim.
As Egypt’s tumultuous revolution enters its fourth year and society becomes increasingly militarised, there has been an escalation of violence against women in general and in particular violence committed by police, says Dalia Abd El-Hameed, a researcher on women’s rights at the Egyptian Institute for Personal Rights.
And while she welcomes the new law, she warns there is a long way to go before there is real cultural change in Egyptian society.
“I believe we have succeeded in terminating the state of denial in both the society and the state, but we haven’t succeeded changing the culture or the behaviour,” Ms El-Hameed says.
“In the past there was a tendency to overlook sexual harassment and to deal with it as an invention of human rights groups and feminist organisations.”
The next step, she says, is to train police officers to receive complaints, initiate a campaign to encourage women to file complaints and raise the awareness of the judges so they use the law to prosecute the perpetrators.
“Getting the woman herself to file the complaint is difficult because there is always huge pressure on her to keep silent, people on the street who witness harassment are also not helpful and police are often major offenders.”
In the middle class Cairo suburb of Mohandeseen, the men Fairfax Media interviewed had a common theory about sexual harassment, blaming women’s dress and their perceived behaviour in public for the abuse.
“Why do we harass? Because there are no jobs, which means we are not able to get an apartment and get married, so when we see a girl walking down the street we will say something to her,” a 22-year-old Cairo University law student said on the condition of anonymity.
“If she is well dressed I will say something sweet to her, to compliment her, but if she is dressed provocatively I might say something else,” he says.
When I ask how he feels when men sexually harass his sister, he admits he does not like it and nor does she.
“Of course she gets really upset when she is harassed.”
Samar is a 23-year-old kindergarten teacher – she says she was first sexually harassed at just 14 years of age.
“That is when men first start to notice you and start commenting, they started calling me names, they start saying you have big breasts or a nice bottom,” she says.
“At first I felt ashamed … but unfortunately I became used to it – for me now it is normal, but if I travel outside Egypt it is a shock when I come back and I am reminded of how awful the culture of sexual harassment is here.”
It is a daily trial, she says, that every woman she knows endures, from the looks men give her on the street, to whistles, comments and at times physical assault, where a man grabbed her breast or, on another occasion, a young teenaged boy hit her bottom.
“I got so upset … but I knew if I reported it nobody would do anything about it.”
Isis Mahmoud Hafez, a director of the committee who drafted part of the new sexual harassment law, admits it is much more limited in scope than one originally proposed by Egypt’s National Council for Women.
Left out are specific protections for women and witnesses, definitions of rape and other forms of sexual violence and social and economic violence, such as women or girls being forced to marry or prevented from obtaining an education or inheriting property, she says.
Regardless, the new law is an important step forward for Egyptian women, she says, and the discussion concerning the broader reforms will take place after the parliamentary elections, scheduled for later in the year.