CAIRO – Hundreds of Egyptian women and girls have come out to denounce sexual harassment and share personal stories about it on social media, breaking a taboo and raising the ire of some in the country’s conservative majority.
In posts on Facebook and Twitter from the weekend to Wednesday, rare, candid stories focused on women’s first experiences of harassment, almost all of which occurred in childhood and some involving family members and teachers.
The campaign promoted by a recent university graduate laid bare a phenomenon endemic to the streets of Egypt’s crowded cities, where over the years women have faced sexual harassment by men or groups of men at a variety of public gatherings, protests or celebrations.
“I didn’t know that there were so many others who went through this, I realized I wasn’t alone,” said 18-year-old high school student Haidi Gamal, who recounted three physical harassment incidents around the age of six by a relative, older schoolmates and a grocery shop owner.
She said she chose to speak out about harassment because many do not believe it is so widespread, and she wanted people in her circle to know. “I thought if someone that they know writes about it, they’ll believe it,” she said.
One woman recounted being assaulted by her own grandfather, and another by an emergency doctor who was treating her while she was in critical condition. Several reported being punished by parents and terrorized into silence when they recounted the incidents.
Alaa Emad is one of those who revived the Arabic hashtag, “The first harassment attempt was at the age of … “
“We’ve gone from women not talking about it, to telling stories about it on their own Facebook pages, and some people don’t like that,” says Emad, adding that despite being insulted and attacked with some hateful messages from strangers, the participation showed that attitudes were slowly changing.
Those denouncing the campaign repeated common justifications for sexual harassment overheard in Egypt: that women are responsible for inviting it through provocative clothing or actions. Others advised women to keep such stories to themselves to protect their honour and preserve their country’s image.
“This is a filthy, useless hashtag. What do we care how and when people harassed you? You are at fault just like the harasser,” one said.
Another social media user lamented the openness of women about their experiences, saying: “Women have become so crude, Muslim women are better than to disgrace themselves like this.”
The magnitude of Egypt’s sexual violence problem came to light in the years following the 2011 popular uprising that overthrew long-time autocrat Hosni Mubarak, when mass rape and sexual assault occurred during several protests.
Since then, organized efforts by civil society to combat the phenomenon encouraged women to be more outspoken about it, despite the insistence of a large sector in society to deny its existence.
In a rare acknowledgement of sexual violence by an official, President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi visited one of his female supporters in the hospital the day after she was severely assaulted during celebrations of his election in June 2014.
However, the problem persists. Last Friday, videos filmed by bystanders and posted online showed dozens of men surrounding and sexually harassing a woman in the province of Zagazig in north Cairo, before the police rescued her.
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