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The stirrings of what may turn into a nascent #MeToo movement have rattled Egypt. On August 15, an Egyptian woman, Menna Gubran, posted a video of a man, Mahmoud Soliman, approaching her on a suburban Cairo street. He invited her to coffee at On The Run, a nearby shop, but Gubran politely declined and began filming, causing Soliman to retreat. Gubran later posted a video of herself accusing Soliman of making inappropriate comments and circling her three times in his car as she waited for her bus. When the media’s attention turned to Soliman, he denied these allegations.
Gubran’s video of the encounter has spread across Egypt, provoking controversy and debate over sexual harassment. However, the definitions of sexual harassment and assault remain nebulous in Egypt. In an interview with Al Jazeera, Maha Ahmed, a human rights lawyer at the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, said: “The incident was indeed harassment and a violation of the girl’s privacy.” However, the social media debate surrounding the incident suggests that many Egyptian men and women disagree. Many responded with age-old justifications for sexual harassment: some reasoned that Gubran overreacted to the man’s respectful and flirtatious approach, while others faulted her for her manner of dress.
These responses shouldn’t come as a surprise. When definitions of sexual harassment and assault are unclear, sexism and victim-blaming guides the prevailing discourse on these issues. In an interview with Al-Shorouk, an Arabic newspaper, Mozn Hassan, a women’s rights activist, stated that “[t]he state should lay down a clear definition [of sexual harassment].” In a country as rife with sexual assault as Egypt, the government and activist organizations should provide guidance and education. Perhaps a state-imposed definition of sexual harassment will be a good first step, but it will not fix the issue. If the government moves away from victim-blaming and instead discusses gender-based violence in a manner that emphasizes protecting and supporting women, public thought on these matters may begin to shift. Laws that protect women against sexual harassment are important, but unless public discourse reflects the essence and aim of such laws, progress will be elusive.
In an attempt to target the issue of sexual assault, the Egyptian government passed a law in 2014 which made sexual harassment punishable by up to five years in prison. According to Al Jazeera, this law is poorly enforced, “particularly when it comes to what are considered milder forms of street harassment.” The law’s failure to effect change reveals that progress has stalled. Egyptian women are still in danger. The Thomson Reuters Foundation recently conducted a poll on the treatment of women in cities with over 10 million people. It found that Cairo is the word’s most dangerous megacity for women. In a 2017 poll conducted by UN Women and Promundo, which surveyed 1,380 men and 1,402 women in five Egyptian governorates, nearly 60 percent of Egyptian women said they experienced sexual harassment, and nearly 65 percent of men admitted to harassing women. The poll also revealed that 74 percent of men and 84 percent of women believed that dressing provocatively merits harassment. This problem is not a new one—the uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak brought with it waves of sexual assault. Two years after the revolution, an anti-Mohamed Morsi demonstration in Tahrir Square erupted into political and sexual violence. According to The Guardian, at least 25 women were assaulted during clashes in Tahrir Square. A typical attack consisted of groups of men quickly surrounding isolated women “groping them, and attempting to remove their clothes.”
There are no short term solutions to sexual harassment and assault. These issues have defined gender relations for centuries, but across the world, women and men are striving for change. Gubran’s actions are an essential part of this movement—women must vocalize instances of harassment. When women speak out and fight back they spark conversations and ignite controversies. Inevitably, people will push back and side with the aggressor, but the first steps in the long path of progress begin with public discourse and, hopefully, the government acknowledging that a problem exists. Public discussions prompt people to consider these difficult, uncomfortable issues, and over time can guide and change how individuals and societies at large treat women.