“I get harassed a lot. I can’t count the number of times, especially on public transport…But what can I do, I try to stop it but nothing works. I used to always have a smile on my face while walking down the streets, now I am always frowning, always provoked, always feeling the threat of someone approaching me physically or verbally.” ~ Reem Ibrahim, Auditor, to BBC News
Fed up with being taunted, touched and followed in the streets of their cities, a group of Egyptian and foreign volunteers are preparing to launch HarassMap, a multi-faceted initiative they believe can change the culture of street harassment in Egypt. When a woman is harassed, she will be able to send a text message report to a central computer, which will respond with referrals and resources, like how to make a police report, how to find legal aid, where to get counseling and where to enroll in self-defense classes. The locations where women are harassed will become part of an open-source map, which will record the details of each instance, demonstrate the pervasiveness of the problem, and reveal harassment “hotspots.” Like the Hollaback blogs, victims of harassment will be able to send in their “Stories from the Street”, and at some point may be able to include cell phone pictures of their harassers. HarassMap goes beyond Hollaback, though, with its mapping technology and rapid-response advice. In addition, the volunteers behind the project plan to use it as part of a widespread, multi-media campaign that will increase the public’s awareness of street harassment and stigmatize harassment as “un-cool and socially unacceptable.”
Based on cell phone market data, HarassMap’s creators estimate that 16.5-27.5 million women will be able to make reports. Even so, the project could fail if it is not promoted well among women — if few women participate, the effort might even backfire, with critics citing the project as proof that street harassment isn’t a problem. According to HarassMap’s Executive Summary, their public awareness campaign will include their website, social media outreach, an array of anti-harassment stickers with their SMS number, advertising on the radio and public transportation, and national and international media outreach. They’ll use nonviolent on-the-ground actions like peaceful demonstrations in “hotspots” and recruiting shopkeepers in high-harassment zones to advocate for safe streets. They also intend to use their system of referrals to coordinate with anti-harassment efforts by other groups like the Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights, the Task Force on Sexual Harassment, the Ministry of Education, and more. Finally, they’ll advocate for increased police presence in “hotspots,” immediate police response to SMS reports, and legislation to protect women and penalize those who torment them. HarassMap will work on four levels, its founders say: Action, Assistance, Awareness, and Advocacy.
Though some members of the Egyptian government, including the first lady, have said sexual harassment does not exist in Egypt or is brought on by the victim’s clothing (that sounds familiar!), there is little doubt that Egyptian streets can be a gauntlet for women. In a 2008 study by the Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights, 83% of Egyptian women and 98% of foreign women reported being sexually harassed in ways including verbal abuse, stalking, groping, and indecent exposure. Perhaps just as telling is the fact that over 62% of men told researchers they had harassed women, and most said that doing so made them feel more masculine, and that they had harassed women since they were young. Contrary to the perception that women are targeted for being “improperly dressed,” slightly over 72% of the women who reported harassment to the researchers had been veiled at the time of the incident. Though harassment is clearly running rampant, witnesses of harassment were disinclined to interfere in any way — only 0.1% of all surveyed witnesses reported attempting to help the victim.
In 2008 BBC News interviewed several Egyptian women who had been harassed, and one of the common threads through the interviews was the powerlessness the women felt and the total lack of help they received from bystanders. Posy Abdou, a shop worker, said …
“I get harassed 100 times a day. I tried everything to stop it but it doesn’t stop. I wear loose clothes, I don’t wear make up, I spend more than an hour in front of the mirror everyday thinking of ways to hide my body…I remember so many scary harassments. There was this guy who followed me and suddenly grabbed my bottom in front of everyone. I screamed but he ran away and no one interfered.”
Hoda Gallal, a housewife, told the BBC, “I get harassed every day, although I am always carrying my baby… Another time I was walking home and this guy unzipped his trousers in a car next to me. I screamed, but he shouted back very aggressively, saying, ‘Who do you think you are? Why would I even look at you?’ People in the street gathered around us and to my surprise they were not sympathetic with me. They supported him. They all defended the guy because they do the same thing.”
Compared with other serious problems women suffer in Egypt, like domestic violence and rape, street harassment may seem relatively minor. Why, a critic might ask, would passionate, intelligent activists devote themselves to a campaign against wolf whistles and surreptitious squeezes — offenses that make women uncomfortable and afraid, but don’t cause them grievous bodily harm?
The website “Stop Street Harassment” says, “No country will achieve gender equity as long as half the population is harassed when they leave home” — and as one volunteer told The Guardian, “Egypt is our home.” Insisting that women have every right to be in public in their own city is a powerful statement of women’s rights that is at the core of the struggle for equality. Harassing women on the street may be a cloak for insecurity, it may be a masculine bonding ritual, it may be a way to elicit some type — any type — of female attention, and so on, but it is also, consciously or not, a statement that men “own” the public sphere and have a right to torment any women on “their” streets. Considering that Egyptian men surveyed openly reported that harassing women makes them feel “masculine,” it seems harassment is tied to men’s idea of themselves as men — to be a man is to have power over women, to be able to touch or taunt them without remorse. For Egyptian women, insistence of their right to walk on the street without being accosted, and free of nonconsensual advances, is an assertion of their right to exist in public on equal terms with men.
HarassMap is an ambitious project, but an inspiring example of using technology as part of a campaign to change culture. The successes they achieve and challenges they face will be worth examining and learning from, as well as valuable in their own right. If they can move toward “restor[ing] Egypt’s tradition of public safety for women” even slightly, they will have changed the daily experience of millions of women for the better.
Photo of woman walking in Cairo from Ed Yourdon's flickr, available for reuse by Creative Commons license.