Sexual Harassment Testimonies from Egypt… A Legal Vacuum or Tacit Family Approval?

Fatima Badri
Tunisian Journalist
In Egypt, around 99% of Egyptian women and girls have experienced some form of sexual harassment.

“I will share my story because this issue has ruined my life. I was six years old when my three-year-older brother was making lame excuses to sleep beside me. I felt like he was abusively approaching me, and something was wrong. Instinctively I felt that something was wrong, but didn’t understand much. As time passed, whenever he’d find me sitting anywhere, he would literally stick to me or ask me to sit on his legs. I knew something was wrong, so I would shut him off, but he kept threatening me that if I didn’t obey him and do what he wanted me to do, he would tell my father that I’d participated with shameful practices with our neighbor, whom I’d also had a dispute with because of harassment. As one might expect, my family always dubbed me a liar, and trusted my older brother from our early years. I was afraid that he would rat me out to my father, who would buy my brother’s story and severely punish me. He kept telling me that my father would kill me if he knew. I was terrified and didn’t have a way out.”

With these words, that may seem shocking for many, Huda (alias) spoke out about her painful experiences of sexual harassment that she had experienced from her neighbor and brother, with her family’s indirect approval who failed in their duty to protect her and listen to her in an open-minded and reassuring manner.

Huda’s story and similar stories spread in reaction to #support_your_children_against_sexual_harassment, a hashtag prompted by Wael Abbas, the Egyptian blogger, to encourage girls to break their silence and fear, and to face these incidents with more power and courage, as well as to raise the parents’ awareness of the urgent need to support their children, rather than continue to play the negative roles they tend to play in such cases.

Abbas’s hashtag came in harmony with the online campaign that went viral on social media a few days ago in Egypt, as dozens of girls filed a complaint against a young man accusing him of sexual harassment and rape, and used the #harasser tag to reveal his name.

The events of this campaign dated back to the sexual harassment and rape accusations young women filed against the young man on social media, particularly on Instagram, calling on other victims to speak out and reveal what happened to them.

Dozens of young women responded to the campaign and submitted their testimonies, while some shared sound clips revealing that they were blackmailed, raped, and sexually harassed by the same person.

Back to Huda’s story, the years hadn’t deterred the older brother and his harassment of his sister didn’t stop but became even more intense, often “touching” and hugging her under threats. He went as far as forcing her to sleep with him with her underwear off for two years.

“As we grew up. Whenever we stayed up late and everyone was asleep, he used to make me sleep with him on the bed without my underwear on. Of course, he was very keen to do all of this without getting to the point of me losing my virginity. It lasted for years, I literally couldn’t speak a word, crying by myself from fears of being pregnant.”

Between the ages of ten and twelve years old, Huda began to understand bit by bit what her brother had done to her. She tried to avoid being alone with him except for a few times when she was forced by him to subdue to his whims. She was determined to get away from him as far as she could, even if she had to stay away from her home during the night, for fear of being alone with him in the family house. Although he knew that she had grown up and realized the obscenities he had done to her, it didn’t deter him from taking every chance to attack her. She tried for years to tell her family but her fear of their reaction, and the knowledge that they would believe her brother instead of her prevented her from doing so.

“In the first year of secondary school,” Huda continued, “I was aware enough to keep him away. One day I was staying up late studying and, everybody was asleep, he asked me to help him memorize his lessons. Since it was a long time since he had last bothered me, I thought he had changed. I went to his room. After a while, he approached me, beat me, and forced me to subdue to him. I tried to resist but in vain, and I used to break into tears during such times. However, for two years, I was tearless and I lost sense of everything. God only knows what woke my mother up as she knocked on the door, he hurriedly put his clothes on and I followed suit, and the day passed as usual, but I couldn’t eat or drink. I couldn’t sleep a wink, like my childhood days, when I was afraid of finding a hand disgustingly touching me. I really hated myself.”

Later after this accident, Huda was late out with her girlfriend, and her brother spoke ill of her. When she returned home, her mother rebuked her, and she broke into tears and revealed all the obscenities her brother had been doing to her for years. Her mother didn’t believe her and dubbed her daughter a “liar” and told her that she would never trust her again, and she was treated literally like “a stray dog”, according to her, since that moment.

Huda’s testimony has corroborated several reports shedding some light on the fact that the street is not the only place the Egyptian women experience harassment, especially since light has been shed about the spread of such a phenomenon in the family home, a home that is no longer safe for many. Egyptian women are facing great difficulties in tracking harassment within the extended family sphere, owing to the absence of safe spaces provided to the victims where they could resort to in case of any violations, and the absence of the necessary protection for them, whether by the state or civil society.

Despite the adoption of a law punishing harassers, resorting to lodge a complaint against the harassers in police stations often turns against victims who are being exposed to new abuses there. This has caused many female victims to remain silent.

The Egyptian street has never forgotten the incident of the arrest of Amal Fathi, from Egypt, on May 11, 2018. She was arrested because she had posted a video on “Facebook” condemning sexual harassment and criticizing the Egyptian government for its failure to deal with and stand up to this phenomenon. Amal was detained for 15 days, and then the Higher State Security Prosecution interrogated her in another case about an alleged relation with a youth political movement.

Article 306 bis (a) of the Penal Code provides that “A penalty of detention for a period not less than 6 months and a fine of not less than 3000 pounds and not exceeding 5000 pounds, or one of these two penalties, shall be inflicted on whoever molests a female in a manner offending her modesty, even by means of obscene insinuation, by words or gesture, on a public road or a frequented place, or through any means of communication.”

Regarding Malak (alias), the return of her maternal uncle from abroad and his settling in her family’s house for a period formed the beginning of her struggle with harassment, which had a severe effect on Malak’s relationship with men, even after she reached the age of 24. When her mother turned her back to her and forced Malak to remain silent by her shocking response, it aggravated Malak’s situation.

“The story started when I was a little girl. My uncle used to give me sweets and money, and then he began to harass me sexually and sometimes, sorry for being crude, he’d force me to touch his penis and many other things which I cannot tell you about. When I tried to tell my mother, who was supposed to support and protect me, she was angry with me and told me if my father got to know anything about what happened, he would give me a hard time. As I was very young, I was afraid and remained silent, and life went on as if nothing had happened,” Malak narrates.

Because of what happened to her in her childhood, Malak sought to leave the family’s house with the first job opportunity she got and settled on her own. However, she refuses to go through any emotional experience with any man until this day. Additionally, whenever someone tries to get close to her, she feels disgust and keeps herself away. “I live alone; I cannot return to my family, or let anyone get close to me. The fact that I will live and die alone without anybody around me, never leaves my mind. But at least it makes me feel safe, because no one will hurt me,” Malak explains.

The United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women had announced during a study conducted in 2018 that about 99 percent of Egyptian women had experienced some form of sexual harassment. Also, local and international reports are consistent about the high rates of harassment in Egypt, as “Thomson Reuters” Foundation described Cairo in its report in late 2017 to be one of the most dangerous cities for women. There are some reports and studies indicating that Egypt ranks first globally when it comes to the sexual harassment phenomenon.

Amnesty International organization emphasizes that the Egyptian authorities have failed to prevent violence against women, which has remained widespread, as well as to sufficiently interrogate or punish perpetrators of that type of violence. Moreover, the authorities have kept violating the privacy of the victims during both the reporting and litigation phases. In certain cases, the police either forced the victims who reported incidents of violence to remain in the police station until the next day, or refused to register their reports. Additionally, there have been reports of several cases in which the police have asked women and girls who have reported sexual violence to undergo virginity checks.

Sexual harassment does not only happen to girls and women; it also happens to males especially at the age of childhood. Incidents of male sexual harassment are handled from the same perspectives and are subjected to the same rules of the incidents of sexual harassment to females, specifically on the family level.

At the age of 11 to 12, Sami (alias), who comes from a simple rural governorate in Egypt, decided to work to support his family. He joined his elder brother who lives in Cairo and lived with him. This step had serious consequences as he was subjected to harassment and repeated rape attempts that affects his personality till now.

“I was a naïve rural boy but still clever and excellent in my studies. I worked in a local bakery and used to sleep in an inhuman place. One night, after a hard day at work, my brother’s roommate (between 18 and 20 years old) sexually harassed me and tried to rape me but I was attentive and tried to avoid him. When he insisted, I left the room and ran to my brother, told him and expected him to help me,” Sami explains.

The brother, who is a drug addict, failed to meet Sami’s expectations and just told him not to go to that place anymore. The attitude of Sami’s brother left him frustrated, especially since the harassment and rape attempts did not stop and have changed his life for the worse, when he found himself in a family and social community that chose to be his punisher instead of being the awaited supporter.

“I survived actual rape, but the stigma and the fear changed my whole life. I never became that naïve person again. The bigger problem was that when I told my family, sometimes they used it against me. This caused me a lot of pain and made me lose my faith in everything. I got lost and hurt myself a lot.”

Despite the importance of the campaigns launched in Egypt about the harassment issue, breaking the silence of many women, and the brave talk about their stories in the different stages of their lives, Wael Abbas, the blogger and the launcher of the hashtag with which many males and females have interacted, does not expect them to cause a big change in this matter.

Wael told “Daraj”: “We have launched campaigns previously to no avail. For example, let’s recall the campaign we launched against the collective harassment in Eid al-Adha in 2006. Back then, we published videos and photos showing sexual harassment that caused quite a stir. In the end, we were accused of defaming Egypt. Today, there is condemnation indeed, but is there any intention to activate the pre-existing laws against those who commit sexual harassment? Will there be any change in the awareness of the people? Will victims and their families accept to file complaints against the perpetrators? This is the goal, and we cannot be certain it will be achieved.”

Wael Abbas unexpectedly received a remarkable number of testimonies, and many have interacted with the “hashtag” he launched. The testimonies received in his “Facebook” and “Whatsapp” inbox surprised him at the content level as well. Especially testimonies from men and youth which he did not imagine receiving, in addition to other testimonies that go back to hurtful childhood experiences. Maybe those testimonies are the reason for raising issues like pedophilia, the responsibility of families, incest, and other topics that seem different from the traditional concept of sexual harassment of females.

“I was also surprised by the testimonies of sexual harassers who expressed their views and their adopted philosophy regarding the subject. The diversity of their opinions caught my attention; some believed women do want to be harassed, others said that they were harassed and that’s why they became harassers, and others confirmed that they have repented these actions and started fighting harassment.”

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