Thursday, November 4, 2010
The Harrassment Map
By Diana Mukkaled
This comment was published in Asharq al-Awsat on 4/11/2010
Statistics say that Egypt has one of the highest rates of women subjected to sexual harassment in the world.
We do not know if this figure is accurate, but the growing phenomenon of sexual harassment in Egypt is a fact of life, and if it is proven that Egypt is in fact amongst the worst in the world in this regard, then it certainly would not be a shock.
How can we forget what happened a few years ago, when on the second day of Eid al-Fitr, and in broad daylight, a collective frenzy of harassment took place, in the most crowded streets of the Egyptian capital?!
Today, some human rights groups are preparing to launch a website, allowing Egyptians to report incidents of harassment quickly, by sending mobile phone text messages, or by using the “Twitter” social network. The website, called ‘Harass Map’, will include a digital map of Cairo displaying harassment hotspots, i.e. those areas with high levels of reported harassment cases, and which could pose a danger to women. This information will be exchanged between activists, the media, and the Egyptian Interior Ministry. Those launching the site say that the idea behind the launch is to inform women who are targeted by harassment that they are not alone, and they can get help immediately.
There is no doubt that the new media, and first and foremost blogs, have brought the issue of sexual harassment against women to public attention. This medium has become the predominant force dealing with the phenomenon, while the traditional media outlets described it as the actions of individuals, with nothing to do with Egyptian society on the whole. The rise of the Egyptian blogging community means that evidence, and vivid images of what is happening on some streets in Cairo, can be published on the Internet. These incidents range from physical and verbal transgressions, inappropriate staring or touching, and the tearing of clothes. The blogging community has managed to expose this phenomenon to society and the state, initiating discussions on the issue, and ways to reduce it. There are two most likely approaches to confront this scourge: the first would be a superficial treatment, blaming the phenomenon on social influences such as the spread of unemployment and marginalization, increased repression, and the decline of morality.
The second approach would be a religious one, where often the victim, or the woman [in most cases], is blamed as responsible for the actions of their harasser. However, it is important to note that most women who are subjected to harassment also wear the veil.
If these high rates of harassment are in direct proportion to the high rates of unemployment and low incomes, then it cannot be ignored that they are also in direct proportion to the rise in religious conservatism, and particularly in Egypt. If harassment is prevalent in an environment suffering from unemployment, then it is also prevalent in the same environment which is dominated by social and political religion. Here we should ask the question: Why, with a higher proportion of women wearing the hijab and niqab, and this can be observed on Egypt’s streets, is there also a rising ‘frenzy’ of harassment, whereby the streets have transformed into an arena where men lurk in wait for women, as we see and hear about every day?
A genuine analysis of this problem needs the courage shown by the new media, which took upon itself the task of combating the phenomenon of harassment. Merely restricting public space or limiting freedom of expression will not be helpful at all, with regards to understanding the phenomenon, or limiting it.