Men behaving badly

In a landmark court case, an Egyptian man was sentenced to three years in jail on Tuesday for sexually harassing a woman in the street. The verdict is an unexpected victory for women's rights activists who have been fighting for years to convince a reluctant media to bring up the issue. In Cairo, MENASSAT spoke with plaintiff Noha El-Ostaz and activists about Egypt's dirty secret.
According to a recent study, 83 percent of Egyptian women have been subjected to sexual harassment of some kind. R.R.

CAIRO, October 22, 2008 (MENASSAT) – On Tuesday, October 21, Sherif Gomaa was sentenced to three years in prison with hard labor for groping 27-year-old filmmaker Noha El-Ostaz on a street in the Cairo suburb of Heliopolis last June. Gomaa, a van driver, was also ordered to pay El-Ostaz 5,001 Egyptian pounds ($894) in compensation.

Women's rights activists in Egypt are hailing the ruling as the first victory for a woman in such a court case. 

"It was definitely a surprise. Even the lawyers thought he would be given a maximum of one year in jail," Engy Ghoslan from the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights (ECWR) told MENASSAT over the phone from Cairo on Wednesday.

"The judge was setting an example in this ruling. Now people will think twice before groping a woman," Ghoslan said.

Groped from a van

Just last week, MENASSAT met with the plaintiff in the case, Noha El-Ostaz.

She recounted how she was on her way home on that June night when she was suddenly groped from a passing van.

"A guy showed up with his van… He rolled down the window and put his hand out. He crossed the street with his car and pulled up next to me and groped me. I tried to open his door but he had locked it. So I climbed up on another car and onto the truck," El-Ostaz told MENASSAT.

Onlookers gathered at the scene, but few did anything to help her.

Noha El-Ostaz. © BBC

"People were just standing there. I was telling one man that I had been sexually harassed. He asked me laughingly what that meant."

El-Ostaz managed to drag Gomaa to the police station after an hour-long tussle on the street in which she refused to let go of Gomaa’s side mirror.

To add insult to injury, when El-Ostaz and Gomaa entered the police station the officer on duty refused to open an investigation without her father present – despite the fact that she was 27-years old and no longer considered a minor under Egyptian law.

"He told me that it was for my own safety and reputation. Here I was with my attacker! I told him he was obligated to open an investigation!"
El-Ostaz' experience was only one incident in what has become a very common thing for Egyptian women.

A study published by the ECWR recently claimed that 83 percent of Egyptian women have been subjected to sexual harassment of some kind.

The ECWR said that only about 12 percent out of 2,500 women who complained to the organization actually went to the police to complain.

The report also suggested that more conservative dress-styles were not a deterrent to harassment. In fact, the survey concluded that the majority of harassed women were veiled.

Yet, until recently, the mainstream Egyptian media rarely reported about sexual harassment cases.

Black Sunday

When El-Ostaz told her story on the show Tissaein Daqiqa on the Egyptian cable channel Mehwar, her appearance attracted a significant amount of feedback, although most of it was negative.

"Many people called in saying they found what I was saying provocative. This is my life story. They should respect it," said El-Ostaz.

Still, El-Ostaz's case has forced the Egyptian media to take note and has helped increase awareness about a previously taboo topic, says the ECWR's Ghoslan.

In fact, the topic has even become something of a media hype lately.

"International media, independent media, and now even government-supported media like Al-Ahram have covered this year's awareness day for sexual harassment," said Ghoslan.

It is a far cry from the dark days of 2005, when the subject was considered taboo.

"Back then, anyone who wrote about harassment was attacked in the press. Writers from the opposition and bloggers were called liars," Goslan said.

In May 2005, on what is now referred to as "Black Sunday," a number of female journalists and political activists were physically and sexually harassed during a demonstration on Egypt's referendum day.

It was the first in a string of incidents that would slowly make their way into the mainstream media.

Two years ago, a large mob of young men started assaulting women, groping them and tearing their clothes off, in the center of Cairo during Eid El-Fitr, the feast to end the Ramadan fasting period. Police stood by without intervening.

Video footage of the incident made its way to the Egyptian blogosphere, and from there to the international and Egyptian media.

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Most recently, a group of up 150 young men is said to have physically attacked five female pedestrians in Cairo's Mohandiseen area during this year's Eid El-Fitr, tearing some of their clothes off.

News reports claim that up to 38 of the attackers were arrested, but that 30 of them were released soon thereafter for lack of evidence. None of the women attacked have been identified.

The increasing number of serious incidents, the heightened number of complaints from both Egyptian and foreign women, combined with ECWR's report, have made it increasingly hard for anyone to deny the existence of the issue, says Ghoslan.

Blaming the victim

As a result, a number of groups have found the courage to raise awareness about sexual harassment through media campaigns.

Some of these campaigns, however, have raised controversy because they appear to be blaming the victim rather than the perpetrator.

In an email that was recently circulated among Egypt's blogging and activist communities, a photomontage depicted two bright red lollipops: one of them covered in a wrapper; the other, uncovered and swarmed by flies.

"You can't stop them, but you can protect yourself," reads the body of the email from an unknown sender.

A similar montage showing two pieces of candy was also widely circulated via email, including as stickers on billboards and in Cairo's subway.

The candy wrapper montage is said to be the creation of the Muslim Brotherhood. MENASSAT asked the Brotherhood's Essam El Arian for a reaction.

MENASSAT: So the posters are from the Brotherhood, correct?

ESSAM EL ARIAN: "Not by the Brotherhood… By other groups."

MENASSAT: But they are signed by the Brotherhood?

"Maybe some groups in the Brotherhood say that this is an invitation to veil."

MENASSAT: What do you say to that?

"That is an idea from them – ijtihad – to get more women to veil. Harassment or not, it is an order from God for women to wear the hijab."

MENASSAT: Do you then approve of this campaign to put the blame on women?

EL ARIAN: "They don't put the blame on women. They just invite them to protect themselves from harassment. You can do that. That is not blaming women."

MENASSAT: So it is just an invitation?

"Of course."

MENASSAT: But why not attack the men instead?

EL ARIAN: "There are also posters that urge men to respect themselves."


El Arian was probably referring to a recent campaign started by the Egyptian youth magazine Kelemetna that focuses on the perpetrators of sexual harassment and not the victims.

Under the slogan, "Respect yourself: Egypt still has real men," the campaign seeks to deter men from sexually harassing women, and to confront harassers whenever they spot them.

Rights groups such as ECWR have taken a different approach: relentlessly lobbying for the implementation of a law criminalizing sexual harassment.

No bill has been passed so far, but new legislation proposed by Egypt's National Council for Women (NWR) is currently in the legal pipeline.

ECWR held a round table discussion on the proposed draft bill on Tuesday.

"Yesterday, on the same day as the court sentence, we sat down with legal experts and members of Parliament to discuss it," said Ghoslan.

Yet, she believes other measures might be needed to reach a long-term solution.

"Implementing a law is a good short-term solution, but the long-term solution starts with the kids. You have to teach them that sexual harassment is not something acceptable. Hopefully, we will soon have generations thinking differently."