CAIRO — Tackling the country's sexual harassment epidemic was never a priority for the crowds that gathered, in 2011, in Cairo's Tahrir Square. And yet unlike the largely unmet reforms they did demand, the fight against sexual violence is one area in which Egypt really has made strides in recent years. It's been a collateral benefit, in that sense, of the momentum and temporary expansion of public space associated with the revolution.

Research conducted in 2013 by UN Women found that more than 99% of Egyptian women experienced harassment. Without reliable statistics, it's impossible to say with any certainty whether the numbers are any better. What is clear, say people engaged with the cause, is that the state and society as a whole are no longer in complete denial about the problem. There have been moves, they say, toward acknowledging the widespread nature of sexual harassment. There is more sympathy for victims. And steps — flawed as they may be — have been taken toward addressing the issue.

In the years before the revolution, society was largely indifferent to the question of sexual harassment. Even civil society organizations and activists were reluctant to support their feminist partners who were raising the issue. "They said this is a middle class women's cause, and that we are siding with them against the poor workers who are the harassers," says Mozn Hassan, the executive director of Nazra For Feminist Studies.

Outrage faded, however, after a couple of angry newspaper columns and talk show episodes.

When the Egyptian Center for Women Rights released statistics on harassment in 2007, she recalls, the organization was heavily criticized, even by civil society partners. Two years earlier, a group of attackers believed to be affiliated with the regime sexually assaulted female demonstrators and journalists as they were protesting constitutional amendments outside of the Journalists Syndicate on what was dubbed "Black Wednesday." Opposition groups strongly condemned the attack. But it went largely unnoticed by the rest of society.

Sexual assault was briefly brought to the foreground of collective consciousness the following year when groups of men mass assaulted women during Eid. The shock caused by videos of the heinous assaults that bloggers posted online created short-lived outrage that faded, however, after a couple of angry newspaper columns and talk show episodes.

But when brutal mass sexual assault and rape occurred during crowded protests in Tahrir Square in the political turmoil in the years following the Jan. 25 revolution, the public response was much more sympathetic to survivors.The activities of groups such as OpAntiSH were also pivotal, from going to the squares on protest days and intervening to prevent mass rape and assault to assisting those attacked in getting medical, legal, and psychological support to outreach and documentation.

The Tahrir effect

The ferocity and shocking nature of the assaults coincided with a momentary expansion of public space leading to unprecedented public engagement with the issue, including extensive discussion on mainstream media. Ahmed Hegab, head of the safe areas unit at HarassMap, an initiative which documents sexual harassment in Egypt, thinks that the period ushered in by the revolution saw both more brutal attacks on women in Tahrir crowds and a breakthrough in how society views sexual assaults and harassment.

"This used to happen before, and no one talked about it," he says. "It happened at soccer matches and during Eid. But it was the first time that we found women taking to the street against assault. This was related to the momentum at the time. That was the big gain: that the general conversation on women's issues was taken to the streets."

HarassMap volunteers — Photo: Official website

Besides the nature of the attacks — with the worst incidents occurring in November 2012 and January 2013 — and their extensive documentation, which made them difficult to ignore, Hassan says that the fact that they took place in Tahrir Square gave them an additional significance.

"I think that what happened in Tahrir took the issue to another level, because Tahrir is a politicized place. So the attacks had to take on a politicized nature. People were talking, and the political groups who had attacked us for our work before started to give it attention," she says.

Hassan adds that groups working on the cause made sure that it resonated beyond their immediate sphere and worked to integrate larger circles of interest, introducing the question of the responsibility of the state, inviting political parties to issue statements and pushing for coverage in mainstream media with different political orientations.

You can't fight harassment and all of patriarchy at the same time.

In a position paper released at the time, Nazra addressed these issues and sought to ensure that the attacks were seen not as exceptional but as part of a broader problem. "While we recognize the political nature of the crimes in the Tahrir area, we cannot separate this from the general harassment women face in Egypt in the public sphere," the paper reads.

Making the fight against sexual harassment enter mainstream discourse came with less than ideal rhetoric. The slogan "Protect her. Don't harass her," for instance, which started on Facebook and was brought to the streets on posters and bumper stickers, reflected a prevalent patriarchal rhetoric. But Hassan thinks it's important to accept these well-intentioned efforts and fight one battle at a time. "You can't fight harassment and all of patriarchy at the same time."

Hassan says that evidence of the social change can be seen in the increased use of the term "harassment" by authorities, observers and even harassers who use it sarcastically. She thinks that the generalization of the term, where previously terms such as mo'akasa ("catcalling") would be misleadingly used, is in and of itself a breakthrough.

Cairo University's inauguration, in 2015, of an on-campus unit to combat violence against women also signals an important social shift. It has held several events against harassment, including a march in 2016 against harassment that was led by university president Gaber Nassar.

Sharing stories

Journalist Mona Yousry challenged the taboo on the little reported world of harassment in workplaces in August 2016 when she submitted a complaint to the prosecution against Ibrahim Khalil, the editor-in-chief of the state-run Rose al-Youssef magazine.

Hegab is involved in efforts by HarassMap to cooperate with institutions in order to introduce anti-harassment bylaws. He says that the majority of the entities that they approach — ranging from street kiosks to multinational companies and progressive local initiatives — resist the idea, equating the imposition of bylaws with an accusation. Hegab believes that ultimately, raising awarenes in small communities, such as workplaces, is the most effective tool to ensure its spread.

The stereotype that only middle class women report harassment no longer holds true, Hassan says, explaining that Nazra receives reports from the metro and the microbus and other locations, which indicates that awareness has spread across society. She also says that local groups cooperating with Nazra are now widespread across the nation, leading campaigns in Upper Egypt and other non-central governorates.

Sondos Shabayek, the founder of the BuSSy Project, a platform for women to recount stories of sexual violence and other feminist issues in public performances, has observed more willingness from women to talk and more willingness from society to listen. 'What I'm most happy with is that someone can describe exactly what happened to them when they were harassed and get away with it," she says.

Source: BuSSy Facebook page

It is a fact that underscores a partial lifting of the taboo on explicit testimonies of harassment, which used to be met by audiences with so much dismay that, during one performance before the revolution, someone called the morality police who came to stop the show. Shabayek says that she has noticed women coming forward to participate in her initiative with more daring stories and to share difficult ordeals with less need for encouragement.

Although unsupported by statistics, Hegab and Hassan have also noticed a significant rise in the numbers of cases in which women seek their support to file harassment cases.

Sisi's gesture

A key moment in how the state engages with sexual violence against women occurred in June 2014, following another tragic attack. A bouquet of flowers that President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi brought to the hospital bed of a woman who was sexually assaulted in Tahrir Square during the celebrations of his inauguration was the signal to all state institutions that this cause now concerns them and they are to cooperate in trying to terminate it.

The shift in attitude of the justice system was instantaneous, as Hassan recalls. The same prosecutor who had insulted Hassan and her colleagues while trying to help a woman file similar assault reports was extremely cooperative, she recalls.

"The cultural rhetoric that 'we have to protect the honor of our women' pushed the state into action," Hegab says. "That and the fact that the issue had reached a point where the state couldn't look away anymore."

Hegab says that in the months after Sisi's gesture, women who attempted to report harassment noted a 100% rate of cooperation. The effect remains, as Hegab says that many members of the police and the prosecution remain cooperative with women trying to report instances of abuse, and that they don't always push for reconciliation, which was the overwhelming trend just a couple of years ago.

Yet these efforts are backed up by neither sufficient awareness nor infrastructure. For example, Hassan recounts that some prosecutors who show great sympathy for sexual assault victims ask insensitive questions after an attack, with the good intention of wanting to deliver justice. Hassan adds that Egyptian hospitals and the Forensic Medical Authority are not equipped with rape kits, which are essential to care for survivors and preserving evidence that Egyptian authorities often throw away.

Some developments have been made, including the formation of a special unit in the Forensic Medical Authority, which consists of seven female doctors trained to handle sexual assault victims, and the development, by the Health Ministry and National Council for Women, of a protocol to deal with sexual assault victims.

A unit within police stations specialized in violence against women, which was first introduced in 2013 following a succession of brutal mass assaults, was generalized across the country in 2014. During Eid holidays over the past two years, scenes of female officers arresting sexual harassers were widely circulated online.

"Confused step"

An important legal breakthrough came in June 2014 with the introduction of a new law that explicitly criminalizes sexual harassment. There had previously been no law specifically on the issue — though there were articles of the Penal Code that could be used — but the law fell short of the proposals put forth by women rights groups calling for amendments to bring legislation in line with international rights standards.

Authorities have also become more familiar with the process. Hassan recalls that when Noha Roshdy, the first Egyptian woman to secure a prison sentence against her harasser, went to a police station in 2008, officers had to fetch a copy of the Penal Code and look up which articles to use to document her grievance. Now, Hassan says police stations are familiar with harassment cases and file them with ease.

But Hassan says the system needs to be further developed, by ensuring, for example, the anonymity of women who report harassment. Otherwise those women are subjected to further harassment and threats from the families of perpetrators who acquire their personal information from the police station.

[...] a failure to acknowledge the role of the security apparatus as a perpetrator of sexual violence

One of the clearest results of the state's engagement with the issue was the launch of the National Strategy to Combat Violence Against Women in June 2015. The five-year plan includes the establishment of sections to combat violence against women in security directorates and a mechanism at the ministry for the receipt of women's complaints.

The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) described the strategy as "a confused step in the right direction." The main criticism was twofold: a poor framing of the issue from a rights-based perspective and a failure to acknowledge the role of the security apparatus as a perpetrator of sexual violence.

Taboo topics

While discussion about sexual harassment has entered into the mainstream, this is not the case for other forms of violence against women, such as rape. However, observers say that the advancements made regarding harassment have opened the space to start addressing rape, albeit to a much lesser degree.

Although discussion around rape remains "constrained," Hassan believes that if it weren't for these developments, it wouldn't have been possible for organizations to hold a 16-day awareness campaign last November on different types of rape. The campaign was launched on the International Day to Combat Violence Against Women, choosing rape as its principal theme under the tagline, "It happens," as a reminder to the public that it does indeed exist.

An even more complicated level of discussion that hasn't been unlocked yet concerns sexual violence in the private sphere, which remains taboo. To address violence in the private sphere, Hassan says, would be to hit patriarchy at its core. "How can women exist in public space when they are oppressed to this extent in their homes by repressive personal affairs laws?"

There are doubts, however, about the extent to which this momentum can continue. A contentious NGO law that threatens the viability of Egypt's civil society was secretly drafted by Parliament, and women's rights organizations have been targeted in an ongoing case against NGOs accusing them of receiving foreign funding. The escalating case may end with the closure of a number of prominent NGOs, and several rights workers face charges that carry life sentences in prison.

We're not addressing the core issue of the problem

The assets of Nazra have been frozen, and Hassan has had her assets frozen and has been banned from travel. Azza Soliman, the head of the Center for Egyptian Women Legal Assistance, has also been banned from travel and has had her assets frozen. Soliman was arrested from her home in December before being released on bail later that day. Founder of Al-Nadeem Center for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence founder Aida Seif al Dawla has been banned from travel, and the Nadeem center was issued a closure order. Since 2000, Al-Nadeem has run a program offering psychological, social and rehabilitative support to victims of domestic violence and rape.

Regardless of how long the spotlight will remain on the issue of sexual violence, Shabayek says that it's important not to confuse momentum with solutions. "We're not addressing the core issue of the problem, so in a couple of years, when gender and harassment are not on the political agenda anymore, we will go back to the way things were and maybe worse," she says.

Shabayek says that long-term solutions consist of real empowerment, embodied in moves like fairer personal affairs laws, which would help develop a societal consciousness that women are citizens with full rights. "Harassment goes hand in hand with the rest of the picture," she says. "It boils down to the idea of seeing women as objects and as inferior to men. This is the very root of violence against women."

See more from Culture / Society here