Egyptian sexual harassment activists battle growing acceptance of violence

Egyptian women waiting to vote in January’s constitutional referendum. Khalil Hamra/AP

Many colleagues and friends have asked me about the surge and intensity of sexual harassment in Egypt, which has already received plenty of attention within academia and the international media. They ask me this not just because I’m a professor of gender studies and a member of the Feminist Review Collective, but also because I’m a woman who lived in Egypt for years.

While I have been appalled by the accounts of harassment over the past year, I have also felt uncomfortable with the way it has frequently been framed. On the one hand, I cringed at the Channel 4 documentary “Egypt: Sex, Mobs and Revolution”, aired in December 2012, which appeared to suggest that Egyptian men had recently turned into uncontrolled sex-crazed monsters. On the other hand, some accounts suggested that the wave of sexual harassment was mainly down to orchestrated actions by the authorities. That debate revolved around the question of whether the paid thugs carrying out the harassment in question were linked to the former regime, the military, or to the Muslim Brotherhood.

To my mind, both these arguments are very simplistic and need to be challenged.

The widespread mobilisation, campaigning and advocacy against sexual harassment in Egypt is unprecedented, and has allowed for a previously very sensitive issue to be addressed publicly by Egyptian women – and, I should stress, by many Egyptian men. This is a drastic contrast to the taboo that previously surrounded any gender-based violence in the country. I remember an incident from my time in Cairo in the 1990s when a feminist organisation, the New Woman’s Research Centre, had sparked uproar by publishing a research and policy paper on gender-based violence. The organisation’s activists were accused of being too westernised for talking about problems that supposedly only occur in the West.

However, in post-Mubarak Egypt, sexual harassment and rape are not only talked about publicly but also underpin plenty of open activism. What is also remarkable is that the issues of sexual harassment, women’s safety in public spaces and their safe participation in political activities are no longer seen as distractions from the broader revolutionary struggle for greater equality and social justice, as was until recently the case. Nowadays, those parties, groups and individuals who see themselves as carrying the sprit of the revolution see the fight against harassment as central to their vision for a new society. It is heartening to see a large number of men of different generations aligned in solidarity, although young men seem to be particularly involved in anti-harassment campaigns, such as Harassmap, Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment (OpAntiSH) and Tahrir Bodyguard.

The fight ahead

To my mind, we must investigate the potential connections between the more orchestrated forms of sexual harassment of women on the streets and a wider normalisation of violence. That proceeds through the torture of men and women at the hands of the authorities, widespread executions in Egyptian prisons, and extra-juridical punishments and executions. Crucially, the Mubarak regime, the Muslim Brotherhood and the military are all culpable here; they have all been guilty of systematically using torture, violence and authoritarian politics as a way to govern and assert control.

But it is equally important to look beyond the systematic gang attacks and tackle wider forms of sexual harassment, linking it to domestic violence, marital rape, female genital mutilation and honour-based crimes and killings. In addition to “looking inward”, I would suggest (as many Egyptian feminists have for many years) that a longer term strategy against harassment must include a campaign for fairer economic redistribution, and against neo-liberal economic policies. Such a strategy must also include a struggle against authoritarianism, whether religious or secular. It must also be a campaign against the systematic marginalisation of women in decision-making processes, both within governmental institutions and across many opposition and dissident contexts.

Above all, we must escape the straitjackets of polarised positions. There is no doubt that all Egypt’s recent governments have used violence, including sexual harassment and rape, in a targeted manner to intimidate women and assert control. But this form of violence does not exist in a vacuum, and both research and activism need to address the whole continuum of sexual and wider gender-based violence. In the long term, Egyptian feminists must intervene in debates to address the increase in poverty, the inequitable redistribution of wealth and resources, and high unemployment rates.

At the same time, one of the biggest dilemmas for me personally, and I suspect for other feminists inside Egypt, is to steer clear of the extremely unhelpful rhetoric of “male mob violence” while simultaneously addressing widespread lawlessness and the acceptance of violence and misogyny.