Policewomen fight sexual harassment in Egypt

A squad of policewomen has been deployed on the streets of Cairo during the Islamic Eid al-Fitr holiday to prevent sexual harassment, an epidemic that tends to rise during holidays and at mass gatherings like protests and public celebrations.

Egyptian police arrested 84 people during Eid al-Fitr for sexual harassment, according to the interior ministry.

 Egyptian women from low-income families are more vulnerable than their well-heeled counterparts because they have only the streets and small patches of public green areas to celebrate with their families and friends. Wealthy people, by contrast, have private places to enjoy themselves.

A policewoman in action against a suspected sexual harasser in Cairo.

The overall picture is bleak for Egyptian women: 99 percent of them are victims of some form of sexual harassment on a daily basis, ranging from verbal abuse in the streets to mob sexual assaults, according to a 2013 UN study.

In 2014, Egypt passed a law that penalises men convicted of sexual harassment with a jail sentence of no less than six months and a fine of between 3,000 LE (US$383) and 5,000 LE (US$638).

Several NGOs that track cases of sexual assault have been founded since the 2011 Egyptian uprising. Such crimes have been endemic since the Tahrir Square protests during the uprising.

Commenting on the latest sexual harassment incidents, Egyptian journalist Tamer Wagih wrote on Facebook:

“Sexual harassment is not a new problem but it has come under the spotlight. It has existed since women entered the public sphere and gained rights to work and study. But until recently, it was limited to incidents of harassment at work and inside the family."

“Sexual harassment at the workplace and in the family is based on power relations, which means an employer, a boss, a father or a husband subjects a woman who comes under his authority to sexual harassment. For this reason, it is a common practice among poorer classes because they desperately need to work and have weaker family structures. These figures of authority use their power to oppress women."

“What is new is sexual harassment happening on the streets and in the public sphere. Catcalling and verbal abuse have always existed but what is new is its increase in extent and rate and the spread of the phenomenon of collective physical harassment.”

“Physical and verbal harassment on the streets does not occur in this case in the context of institutionalised power relations (family, workplace). It involves people who don’t know each other and it happens in the context of a general hatred and low opinion of women in society. Harassment in this case happens within the general structure of discrimination against women in society.”

“In contrast to harassment at the workplace and in the family, physical and verbal harassment on the streets is done mostly by youths, from the dregs of society—the inhabitants of informal settlements (slum areas)—against young women often from a higher social class or from the same class, which means there is no power relation involved.”

“The reason why sexual harassment on the streets has become endemic is a direct result of the conditions created by neoliberalism….In the past, discrimination against women was practiced in the main institutions of society: the family, the workplace and the place of study. With state capitalism failing and the unsuccessful attempts at creating economic growth and development, there has been a surge in unemployment, an increase in informal settlements and a growth in the population of hoodlums seen as ‘useless excess’. The latter have transformed into two groups: an army of thugs and a mass of low paid men doing odd jobs for a living. All this deepens the class divide and hence social hatred, causing a surge in sexual harassment in big cities.”

“Collective sexual harassment is, in my opinion, in part, an expression of regressive defiance by the hoodlums of the informal settlements. This defiance takes many forms: the use of violence by gangs of boys; employing them as thugs to serve the interest of the state and the capitalist class; the spread of drug and sex trafficking."

"The spread of collective sexual harassment is the by-product of the intersection of both their regressive defiance, i.e. their desire to exercise violence as an expression of hatred of society, and the underlying state of misogyny. This has created an abomination--a sadistic condition in which a heightened level of sexual excitement is connected to the level of terror the victim feels.”

This refers to the commonest form of sexual harassment in public places where a group of young men encircle the victim and harass, strip and terrify her.