CAIRO — In Egypt, sexual harassment and assault can be seen everywhere: in a crowded market, where a man rubs his hand against a veiled woman’s breasts; during a protest, when a horde of men rips the clothing off a female demonstrator; on a quiet residential street, where giggling boys follow a pregnant woman calling her names.
According to the United Nations, 99.3 percent of women in Egypt have been sexually harassed, assaulted or raped. Perpetrators are rarely even reprimanded, let alone brought to justice. And the police officials to whom women might turn often blame the victims and harass the women themselves.
Last week, Egypt’s Cabinet approved a draft law that defines and criminalizes all forms of sexual violence. It’s tougher than any preceding law, but activists say it’s not enough.
“Amendments to the penal code are not enough to address the epidemic of sexual violence,” a representative in Egypt with the International Federation for Human Rights, who asked to remain anonymous due to security concerns, told The WorldPost. “Comprehensive measures are required to reform the entire judicial system, including training of police officers, judges, prosecutors and forensics.” The human rights federation recently released a report on sexual violence in Egypt.
The new law, which has not been implemented yet, is supposed to protect people — predominantly women — from anyone who “accosts others in a public or private place through following or stalking them, using gestures or words or through modern means of communication or in any other means through actions that carry sexual or pornographic hints.” Perpetrators are supposed to face hefty fines and lengthy prison sentences if convicted.
But women’s advocates raise questions about how effectively the law will be enforced.
Fatma Khafagy, director ombudswoman for gender equality at Egypt’s National Council for Women, called the draft law an “important yet insufficient step.” She specifically noted her concern that the victims have to provide two witnesses and, in some cases, bring the harasser to the police station themselves.
According to a comprehensive 2013 United Nations study on sexual harassment and violence in Egypt, 40 percent of women surveyed said nobody came to their aid when they were harassed or assaulted in public. In nearly 20 percent of cases in which security forces did intervene, they reportedly scolded, mocked or harassed the victim.
A mural with Arabic that reads “no harassment” is seen on a wall in Cairo on May 24, 2013. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)
During and after the 2011 revolution, mob rapes by protesters and thugs made the headlines, but security officials were also fingered as perpetrators of sexual violence, including forced virginity tests and rapes in prison. In early May of this year, prominent Egyptian human rights advocate Heba Morayaf, formerly of Human Rights Watch, tweeted that an Egyptian police officer had told her that officers at Cairo’s airport were threatening strikes after being disciplined for sexually harassing tourists.
In police stations in Cairo, many officers told WorldPost that they hadn’t heard of the new anti-sexual harassment law, and Ministry of Interior officials overseeing anti-sexual harassment efforts did not respond to WorldPost inquiries on when the draft law would be formally implemented.
In the Bassatine police station in a working-class Cairo neighborhood, officers said that there was simply no sexual harassment in the area, just robbery and other violent crime, and that sexual violence was not a big problem in Egypt.
“There is a difference between sexual harassment and flirting,” Capt. Ahmed Mahmoud said as his male colleagues, none of whom have been trained on issues of sexual harassment or assault, listened. “It’s just an attempt to get to know you.”
Mahmoud declared that women must help curb sexual violence by dressing more conservatively. “If a woman is wearing provocative clothing, the change needs to come from her,” he said.
When asked how he would react if his wife were sexually targeted on the street, one officer simply dismissed it, saying it would never happen because she never leaves the house alone. “She can’t go anywhere without me,” he said.
But another police officer, Capt. Mohamed Sayed Ameen, held up his hand as if firing a gun at the thought of someone harming his wife. While he insisted the sexual harassment problem isn’t as big as others say it is, he recalled how humiliated he has felt when men ogled at his wife, especially when she was pregnant.
In a police station just a 10-minute drive away in the wealthier neighborhood of Maadi, Lt. Col. Essam Ghaly applauded the government for passing the draft law, saying he had been waiting for harsher sentences against perpetrators of sexual misconduct. He said he looks forward to the law being implemented, though he has no idea when that will be.
“There has been a decline in morality,” the middle-aged police officer said, remembering a time not so long ago when he said Egyptian women weren’t afraid to walk outside. “Women used to wear miniskirts,” he said.
In a culture where women are afraid to come forward after being sexually violated, Ghaly said, it doesn’t help that most police stations have no female officers or staff.
“I remember a woman who was too shy to say how she was touched,” he said. “We need this information. It’s an issue that there aren’t many women on the police force.”
But at Ghaly’s own police station, uniformed security officers wielding guns peer over the compound’s walls to leer and hiss at the women walking past (including the two female reporters who wrote this article). However well-intentioned Ghaly may be, it’s hard to see why any woman would feel comfortable reporting sexual violence to the very men who had just humiliated and intimidated her.
May Kamel contributed reporting from Cairo.