By Sara L. Myers (Staff Writer)
With a little too much pomp but not enough circumstance, Egypt unveiled its newly renovated Suez Canal last month. After a year of construction and £5.3 billion spent, the Suez Canal now has two parallel channels that will double its flow of traffic. President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi gave the order to build the second channel in order to revitalize Egypt’s economy.
The refurbished canal’s opening was heavily publicized. Everything from freeway billboards to water bottles advertised the new Suez Canal—Egypt’s Gift to the World. Pro-regime propaganda was out in full force, claiming this new canal was bringing honor back to the Egyptian people. Seemingly overnight, the streets were lined with Egyptian flags. Some hung ten stories up from buildings, while others could be purchased from the hundreds of street vendors selling them. When the day came to finally open the new canal, it was declared a national holiday in honor of the tremendous occasion.
I left Egypt at the beginning of September and so was there to witness all of the aforementioned hurrahing. And as an American I understand the need for a good national hurrah every once in a while.
However, the sheer visibility of this grand opening was immensely shocking and shockingly immense. With a simple snap of his fingers, President Sisi had everyone in Egypt paying attention. Everywhere you looked, people seemed to be in awe of the presidency. Everyone I talked to was hopeful for what this would bring for Egypt’s future. I even saw a float driving along the coastline in Alexandria, with a life-size replica of Sisi celebrating his latest political achievement. In a society where the president has such influence over his people and can rally them towards one single cause so easily, why hasn’t he rallied against sexual harassment?
A United Nations Women survey reported that 99.3% of Egyptian women and girls have been subjected to a wide range of sexual harassment in their lifetimes. Comparatively, the Scottish Government reported that 6% of adults polled have experienced harassment and 4-16% of women have been sexually assaulted to some degree. The vast disparity in these numbers was reported only a year apart (2013 and 2014 respectively) pointing to an ever-growing problem with no signs of stopping.
Before the Arab Spring, sexual harassment was described as a ‘social cancer,’ and even the British Foreign Office reported some of the highest amounts of sexual offenses. Five years prior to the United Nations’ findings, another survey reported 83% of Egyptian women were subjected to such harassment; this rapid escalation in Egypt is reaching epidemic-like proportions.
It was Adly Mansour, the interim president preceding Sisi, who criminalized sexual harassment for the first time in Egyptian history. With a working definition of sexual harassment and concrete punishments for it, Egypt had the chance to make real strides in protecting women’s rights. Previously, crimes of sexual harassment were not tried subjectively nor were they properly legislated. Thus many men, particularly those in positions of power, were virtually free to do as they pleased without fear of real repercussion. Article 267 of the penal code, for example, defined rape as “penile penetration of the vagina” and penetration of any other kind or any other place was merely an “indecent violation.”
Days after sexual harassment was officially criminalized, General al-Sisi became president. He was inaugurated in Tahrir Square, and, recalling the demonstrations in 2011, the Square was packed. People filled the streets until there was no more street left. Not even a week went by before the new law was openly violated when at least nine women reported being assaulted at the event. One woman’s assault was even filmed and went viral within hours. The video is blurry and constantly jostled by the crowd, but the brutality of the attack is obvious.
As expected, there was much public outrage from various sources, but President Sisi only commented on these attacks after receiving harsh criticism for his silence. He quickly condemned the attack and reasserted his stance against harassment, and even put his Interior Minister on the job of enforcing punishments against violators of the new laws.
The President has called for “all citizens to undertake their part to reinstate the true spirit of ethical and moral values in Egyptian society... This should come in parallel with the state's efforts to robustly enforce the law.” However, his past actions and current lackadaisical attempts say different. When President Sisi was only Major General Sisi of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, he argued for the use of virginity tests—tests designed by a patriarchal system to determine a woman’s purity by physically confirming that her hymen is intact. There was much indignation when the public found out about these invasive and outdated testing procedures. Yet, Sisi defended himself and the practice by declaring it a way to protect the soldiers of the revolution from rape allegations. When it was discovered that over a dozen female protestors were taken into custody during early revolutions, an unidentified general actually said, "we didn't want them to say we had sexually assaulted or raped them, so we wanted to prove that they weren't virgins in the first place. None of them were [virgins]."
On the ground, there are many activist groups working for women’s rights, such as HarassMap, Basma, Against Harassment, I Saw Harassment, etc., each one of them working to improve the daily conditions for women in Egypt. HarassMap created an online system to help women map out areas of high sexual harassment. Others send protectors to stand watch in women-only train cars, and there are even some who harass the harassers.
These aren’t secret underground units, working in the dead of night to protect the women of Egypt. They try to be as visible as the Suez Canal adverts. Given the level of organization already in place in these groups, it wouldn’t take much effort for the government to stand behind them and direct more public attention their way. If the President can excite a country of over 82 million about a canal that will only possibly make your Amazon packages arrive two hours earlier, he should be able to stand behind the activists that are working towards tangible positive changes in his country.
Some scholars argue that President Sisi is using the threat of sexual harassment to increase his own police power, particularly since so many of the protestors during the Arab Spring were women. This idea is further corroborated by the fact that the International Federation for Human Rights recently recorded an increase in sexual violence against women at the hands of police and other security officials. If Sisi is as against sexual harassment as he claims, how can this be? How can his words and actions fail to truly motivate the public against these crimes, and for the protection of their own women?
During my studies in Cairo this summer, my colleagues and I witnessed and experienced this culture of harassment. When a woman in Egypt leaves her house, she opens herself up to unwelcome advances from men. There’s no way around it. It doesn’t matter what you wear, who you are, or where you’re going because the likelihood of harassment will be the same. Some harassment is violent and physical, but it can also be as simple as suggestive words or gestures—harassment comes in all shapes and sizes.
Every single woman from my program was harassed at some point in Egypt. We all came from varying backgrounds; half are Western in appearance, and the others could easily blend in. But within days of arriving that didn’t matter. We were all affected. Everyone heard the catcalls, saw the looks and felt the unease. That was only week one. My friend’s taxi driver unashamedly tried to take her to a remote location far away from her final destination. Another was subjected to multiple acts of frotteurism in a crowded fast food restaurant. Yet another was assaulted in her building’s elevator and when she reported it, the doorman either didn’t believe her or didn’t care. A female building employee not only said it was my friend’s fault, but chastised her for not complaining sooner. It seemed that something was always happening to someone. Granted, our experiences came from the perspective of foreign tourists and we can never truly understand how it feels to go through this on a daily basis for our entire lives. Nevertheless, no woman of any background should ever have to feel any bit of this.
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