CAIRO — When one woman was sexually harassed this month in Cairo, she made an unusual move: she came to an informal agreement with her attacker's family and juvenile prosecutors to drop charges on condition that the boy get therapy and do community service.

Having caught the boy who groped her hard from behind, after quite a chase, Mariam says she felt confused. "People assumed that I was chasing him because he'd stolen something from me. They asked me and I said yes, he stole something very important, my dignity." Some of those who had gathered suggested she leave it now, she had caught, hit and insulted him, that he was young and she should forgive him. But those who stayed on the scene, all men Mariam says, encouraged her.

Then, when the police came and the 14-year-old was being put in the van, they hit him on the back of his neck. "I freaked out," Mariam recounts. "We all know what happens in Egyptian prisons and police stations and detention centers. I felt I was caught between two fires. Either I get my rights and this boy is subjected to violence, or I let him go, he will carry on doing it, I'll be passive and other things I can't accept for myself."

The boy's brother came to the police station, but Mariam insisted that his parents come for him. She was concerned that the brother might hide it, and felt that his parents were the ones responsible for him. When they came, she felt reassured. "At no point did they try to justify or minimize what happened. They said they were sorry, that they agreed that their son should be punished, but they begged me to find an alternative way so that he wouldn't be imprisoned because he's a child. In a way, they were also stuck between two fires."

That night she called up a lawyer friend at the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression, who suggested that she leave the boy one night at the station and then drop the case the next day. She felt this was reasonable, but wasn't convinced: "I wasn't looking for a punishment but a solution." Unable to sleep, she spoke with friends and came up with the idea that the boy could do some kind of community service rather than serving time.

Two major factors enabled this: the boy's family, who understood the severity of the issue, and a surprisingly helpful general prosecutor. She spoke with the family first. "Before I had said anything, the mother was saying she would take him to a behavioral therapist," she says. "I was impressed."

The prosecutor told her that whatever she decided, he would support her. "It's empowering for a woman to hear those words from someone in such an institution, but I was so confused and just wanted someone to take the decision for me," Mariam recalls. "Yes, I was reassured by the family, but didn't know if they would pull through."

She told the prosecutor about HarassMap, an NGO that encourages bystanders and institutions to speak up against harassers and has a zero-tolerance attitude toward harassment.

Had her harasser not been a minor, she thinks she may have left him in jail longer before dropping the case. HarassMap's "Safe Areas" unit head, Ahmed Hegab, says it is clear anecdotally that a large number of minors commit harassment. In their latest annual report, HarassMap noted that 8% of cases reported to them were committed by minors.

Many women find themselves in Mariam's situation, according to the gender and women's rights officer at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, Dalia Abdel Hameed. She said that women want to hold their harasser accountable, but don't want to imprison them. She points to a case a couple of years ago when a woman who had dragged her harasser to court asked to speak to him before the judge read out the verdict. She said she didn't want to imprison him, only to be sure that he wouldn't do the same thing to other women. He was let go.

In another recent case, a woman harassed by a policeman at the Mogamaa, the bureaucracy complex in central Cairo, came under pressure not to press charges and was reluctant to do so. She dropped the case on condition that the policeman donate a certain amount of money to an organization working with Syrian refugees. He said he had harassed her because he thought she was Syrian.

Is rehabilitation an option?

Despite the abundant goodwill in Mariam's case — from Mariam, the general prosecutor and the boy's mother — the options were limited. While it would not be legal for HarrassMap to ask him to volunteer, even in an administrative capacity, because he is a minor, the NGO was ready to welcome him into their activities. They will only do this after he has seen a therapist because of the danger he may pose to others in what is meant to be a safe space but the boy's mother has been unable to find a therapist with experience in the field.

Mariam also spoke with several other organizations, including Nazra for Feminist Studies. Nazra's executive director, Mozn Hassan, explains that they do not work with perpetrators. "Eye-opening doesn't happen just like that — it's a complicated process," she says. "So with our very limited resources we would rather work with women than perpetrators. Or, if ex-perpetrators wanted to do a project like this, that would be very good."

Ultimately Hassan thinks rehabilitation should be the role of the state. "The way for them to understand what they are doing wrong is being stigmatized. And if a harasser is obliged to do community service as a sentence implemented by the state, it helps with stigmatization," she says. "But if I take my harasser somewhere to volunteer and also he also has no criminal record, I'm not sure how effective it would be."

Although Hassan and others would like rehabilitation to be part of the legal process, Egyptian law does not allow for community service for perpetrators of sexual violence, and the Egyptian penal system focuses more on punishment than rehabilitation.

"If there was something called rehabilitation in Egyptian prisons, you would be highly skeptical," Abdel Hameed says. "It would need very strong input from human rights and feminist voices — which the state doesn't respect at all."

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi visits a hospital where a sexual assault victim receives treatment — Photo: Apaimages/APA Images/ ZUMA

The sexual harassment law passed in June 2014, which hands out prison terms for harassers, was the outcome of many years of campaigning and workshops by NGOs, although many of their recommendations did not make it into the final law.

Previously, there was no law specifically criminalizing sexual harassment but three articles in the Penal Code could be used — Article 278 against public indecency, Articles 267 against forced vaginal penetration, and Article 268 against "indecent violation."

Abdel Hameed suggests that it was important to create some deterrence. "Prison terms and criminalization was probably necessary to counter the normalization that has been going on for years and years, to reaffirm harassment is a crime."

Harassmap, which campaigned heavily for the law, believes a key function of it should be deterrence. "There are now whole cells holding just harassers, but the state never releases the figures, so the law ends up having less of a deterrent effect than it should have," says Hegab.

"Criminalizing everything is not a solution for social ills," Abdel Hameed warns. "In the long-term, you can't just imprison people. An epidemic sexual violence problem is a problem that will never be solved with prison terms."

"Why is there a social epidemic?" Hassan asks. "Because people don't consider it a crime." Hassan posits a link between social acceptability and the role of the law, explaining that it may seem normal to have a harasser or someone known to beat his wife in your workplace, but it wouldn't be acceptable to work with a known thief. Criminalization is not about locking people away, she says, but getting people to understand that what they are doing is unacceptable.

Most of those who worked to bring the law into existence seem to agree that if the law has had any effect it is because of a social movement more than the state's actions. Indeed, before 2011 women who tried to file complaints about harassment risked public defamation campaigns. They were likely to be humiliated, shamed and told it is improper to talk about such things.

"Only with a strong grassroots movement, women and men, fighting the issue, and declaring ‘we are against this and we demand implementation of the laws, accountability and an end to impunity for perpetrators' — only then does the law make a difference." Abdel Hameed says. "The state's approach has been vertical. When they said they'd do a national strategy, they didn't want to touch the education curricula, public discourse or address gender equality in any meaningful way."

The various groups did a lot of work on trying to dismantle the ideas that make the victim of sexual harassment responsible for it, and the "victim shaming" culture itself. HarassMap, for example, has always made sure that its groups are made up of equal numbers of men and women. The year following the passage of the law, the NGO launched a Make it a Crime campaign to shift the stigma to the harasser. "There has been a huge shift, primarily around the question of who should be ashamed," Abdel Hameed says.

When Mariam chased her harasser, it wasn't entirely out of character. She says she responds to all harassment as a matter of principle, even if it's just verbal. But it wasn't always like this. "I am one of those brought up with the idea that you don't answer back because that would bring you down to their level," she says. "But after five years of revolution, five years of harassment work all around, I have an awareness that I didn't have before."

At a roundtable discussion last year reflecting on four years of combating sexual harassment, Abdel Hameed says, there was an interest in shifting toward a community service and rehabilitative approach. But between feminist organizations being resource-tight and the demand for their work so large, and a penal code geared toward punishment, it seems that women caught between two fires like Mariam will only be able to find informal ways out of the dilemma.

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