Cairo — Two weeks ago, the festival of Eid saw young men grabbing and molesting women in the busy streets of Cairo. This is not the first year sexual harassment has occurred during these celebrations, but never previously has it prompted so much discussion and gained such wide attention.
There is no shortage of reports regarding horrifying individual cases of assault, but it is the prevalence of such behaviour in parts of Egyptian society that is of most concern. The revolution has not yet brought about the rights and freedoms for which many hoped, sexual assault has been used by the state itself as a tool of repression, and with even young boys engaging in harassment, it seems the root of the problem is deeply social and political. Grassroots initiatives to combat gendered attacks have proven highly valuable, but these will need to be matched by equally strong top-down action if the problem is to be tackled effectively.
A culture of harassment
One particularly extreme aspect of the harassment at this year's Eid celebration was mob attacks, which have also been reported during protests and marches since the start of the Egyptian revolution which, beginning in January 2011, toppled President Hosni Mubarak. In these attacks, women of various ages, Egyptian and non-Egyptian, are grabbed, their clothes torn at, assaulted and some raped. The first stories of these mob attacks came in the 2006 Eid celebrations but, unlike over the past two years, these gained little media attention in Egypt or internationally.
In recent weeks, Lara Logan's and Natasha Smith's assaults have been the most high-profile accounts of women pulled away and assaulted around Tahrir Square. These shocking incidents brought harassment to the fore and led British Ambassador to Egypt James Watt to release a statement condemning "the plague of sexual harassment" in Egypt.
However, some still refuse to recognise the issue. Like numerous accounts depicting assault in Tahrir Sqaure, Natasha Smith's blog received several comments claiming she had fabricated the story. Likewise, Lara Logan and others faced blame and questions about why they were there and what they were wearing.
Indeed, many have responded by returning the blame on the female victims. Women have reportedly been told to cover up on the streets and women's movements are particularly concerned at the rise of conservative Salafi groups. There is very much a culture of harassment and women are often leered at and called names if not groped. Onlookers rarely intervene and many refuse to believe female accounts of sexual violence. Although not alone in denying sexual violence and in blaming victims, sexual harassment in Egypt has become epidemic in a culture that largely turns a blind eye to it.
Nevertheless, the Egyptian media, including the likes of the Al Ahram newspaper, is increasingly taking an interest in harassment and reporting on stories of attacks. Meanwhile activism to stop sexual violence is also growing.
One such example is HarassMap, a social initiative that carries out on-street education and support and provides a service for victims to report the incidents via SMS. It was launched in 2010 as a way to change the situation rather than simply wait for the government to take action. Rebecca Chiao, co-founder and director of the initiative, told Think Africa Press that women are now more likely to speak up to harassers and speak out about their experiences. "There was a social consequence, a stigma against harassing", she explains.
Chiao also praised the work of new campaigners and groups such as the Imprint Movement. Imprint patrolled the metros during Eid, reporting harassers and telling men not to use the women-only carriages. Nihal Saad Zaghoul of the Imprint Movement says that asking men to get off the metro "gave the women the courage to speak up".
Unfortunately, however, sexual harassment is not simply a facet of individual attitudes that require changing, but has also become a tool of oppressive forces in the charged political times.
"The forms of violence have increased and changed given the political and social changes taking place after the revolution", Farah Shash of the Women's Program in the El Nadeem Centre tells Think Africa Press.
The iconic image of the woman in the blue bra being dragged across Tahrir Square by military police in December 2011 became a symbol of Egypt's repression, but the attack was not an isolated incident. Shash says that since 2011 the El Nadeem Centre has seen "more cases of violence and torture by the SCAF [Supreme Council of Armed Forces] and MOI [Ministry of Interior] as women have been beaten, dragged in the streets, stripped from their clothes and had virginity tests performed".
In March 2011, a group of 17 arrested women were subjected to virginity tests, a degrading assault in which a military doctor used his fingers to examine their hymens as they waited in a corridor filled with soldiers. One of the women, Samira Ibrahim, took the issue to court. The practice was declared illegal, but the doctor was acquitted March 2012.
Egypt's hierarchical society
Harassment and gender oppression was not something that arose from the Arab Spring, nor is it a result of the Muslim Brotherhood's rise to power. Chiao notes that the attitudes surrounding harassment have worsened since the 1990s, and the Egyptian Centre for Women's Rights released a report in 2008 claiming 83% of Egyptian women have been sexually harassed.
Some claim the root of this behaviour is sexual frustration, but this theory is undermined by the fact that not all victims are women, and often perpetrators are young boys who have not even hit puberty.
Chiao believes that it comes down to Egypt's "very hierarchical society, [which is] very oppressive and aggressive". Women face harassment, she argues, because "women are just one of the groups which are at the bottom".
Tackling the culture of sexual harassment will require concerted efforts from the government - in introducing better legislation, guarantees and training for police - as well civil society as a whole. Since the revolution, groups hoping to reduce women's rights and groups fighting for greater women's rights have gained greater prominence. How this plays out and how President Mohammed Mursi and his government deal with the issue will have serious repercussions for Egypt's women and society.
Laura Aumeer is a Mauritian-British freelance journalist. She holds a BSc in Government and History from the LSE, where she is currently studying for an MSc. She has a particular interest in North Africa. Follow her on twitter @lauraY_A