Day 8/16 of Activism Against Gender Violence: Fighting Back-Reclaiming The 'Public'
In the evening of June 2nd I found myself heading to Tahrir Square, in the heart of Cairo, with no interest in protesting. I really just wanted to check out the scene – by this point, I was frustrated by the fact that the Egyptian people were not united. Everyone seemed to be looking out for their own interests, rather than the interests of the country and its people.
There weren’t many people there at first, but as the crowd grew it felt like we were once again coming together. I was so happy. There were five of us together: three girls and two guys. We walked through the square amongst the crowd, as we had done many times before. I thought this time, like the others, it would be safe. But it wasn’t.
Suddenly, men started grabbing at us, pulling us away from each other. They started groping me and pulling my hijab (headscarf) off. I lost my friends in the crowd; I was terrified. Some men tried to help by hiding me behind a small kiosk. I kept looking for my friends. I couldn’t find them. Finally, I was able to reach one of them and she told me that she was safe.
My other friend was raped.
My heart aches for her. I keep playing the whole scene in my head over and over again. She was right in front of me. Then someone grabbed me from behind so I looked behind me. When I looked back, she was gone. I kept looking for her, but I couldn’t see her anymore. It was as if I was at high sea and the waves were tossing me all about. The image of her on the ground, bruised, will haunt me till the day I die.
How can people be so evil? Why is it that no one is held accountable for what they do? The men responsible are walking freely in the streets today looking for their next victim and there is nothing I can do about it.
I was raised to believe that good people are rewarded and bad people are punished, but once I came out into the world I realized that it’s not true. It’s the other way around. I feel betrayed, I feel angry. I feel guilty for not protecting my friend. I wish it had been me instead of her.
Who should I blame for this? Hosni Mubarak for destroying my country’s education or our useless police who are incapable of defending us? Or our religious leaders who claim that they want what’s best but who don’t teach these young men what’s right? Or our educators who have degraded learning into just a business, or our politicians, who just want power? I wonder!
I didn’t know who to blame or who should I turn to. In June, I decided, with the help of some friends, to found Imprint Movement.
I founded this movement because I don’t want any other woman to feel the way that my friends and I felt that night. I want to live in a country where I’m not punished simply because I am a woman.
The Imprint Movement (Harakat Basma in Arabic) is an organization driven by volunteers. Founded in July 2012, it confronts a number of persistent social issues, from widespread illiteracy to the plight of street children. The movement’s first project focuses on combating sexual harassment.
According to the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights, more than 80% of Egyptian women have experienced sexual harassment, and many of them experience unwanted sexual advances on a daily basis as they go about their ordinary economic, social and political activities in the public sphere. In Egypt’s current unsettled climate, the scale and severity of sexual harassment has unfortunately only increased.
The movement’s approach to sexual harassment is based on two fundamental principles: nonviolence and the power of dialogue. We categorically reject the use of verbal or physical violence to combat harassment, and believe that the only way to end harassment – itself a violent phenomenon – is through respectful dialogue.
Early on, we realized that we would not be able to do this alone so we turned to the police and asked them to be present during our security patrols. The officers agreed to send us patrol cars and officers to help in arresting harassers.
On Eid Al-Fitr our subway patrols intervened in more than twenty cases of sexual harassment, leading in two cases to official charges being filed against harassers. We also reported many more cases of ‘violating station rules’ to station security; most of these were male passengers who refused to disembark from the women’s car. Our presence also deterred an unknown number of potential incidents of harassment.
On Eid-Al-Adha our patrols on Talaat Harb street and square intervened in more than 40 sexual harassment cases. By the third day of our patrol on the square there were almost no harassment incidents at all.
Beside my work with Bassma/Imprint Movement, I am also working with HarassMap. HarassMap is a volunteer initiative that uses online and mobile technology to support a huge offline community mobilization effort to end social tolerance for sexual harassment.
We aim to provide a way for victims to speak out and access aid services, by documenting harassment and by mobilizing our communities to end toleration of harassment. HarassMap is working street by street to end sexual harassment and restore our dignity and pride.
We have community outreach teams all over the country that go out once per month to their own neighbourhoods all over Egypt to ask shop owners, police, doormen and others with a presence in the street to be active and watchful guardians against harassers in their community. We also create ‘Safe Areas’ in shops and vehicles.
We also do police outreach - we provide hotspot locations to police in order to help them with their effort to increase police presence in high harassment areas. We are also campaigning police to their radios to respond to SMS reports of harassment on-site.
Through my work with both organizations I have come to realize that there are many youth in Egypt who hate sexual harassment and who are eager to mobilize against it.
All I ask of women is to speak up and not be afraid, because no one will give us our freedom on a plate of gold. We must stand for ourselves to have a better future for ourselves and our daughters to come.
Nihal Saad Zaghloul is an Egyptian activist and founder of the Bassma/Imprint movement. She also works with the HarrassMap initaitve to help end social tolerance of sexual harassment.