Why Egyptians are adopting frontier justice to punish sexual harassment

The Egyptian government is modernizing its sexual harassment law. These men say that's not enough.

Essam Bashary no longer goes to demonstrations in Cairo. A liberal, he's too disappointed by the way the Arab Spring has degenerated into a fight between military and Islamists in Egypt.

But the 26-year-old Tahrir Square veteran has found a new cause to occupy his time — fighting sexual harassment.

Egyptian women have been complaining about high levels of harassment for years, and a recent UN survey concluded that 99 percent of women in the country have either experienced unwanted physical advances or been verbally harassed. Despite this, convictions of perpetrators are rare.

A number of activist groups and NGOs are working to combat the problem, encouraging women to report incidents and calling for an end to the practice's social acceptability.

Bashary has taken a different approach: Along with a group of friends — like him, former revolutionaries who previously supported Mohamed ElBaradei and his Constitution Party — he founded a social media initiative called "Tie up the Harasser." The group's mission is to put the focus on Egyptian men, calling on them to challenge sexual harassers where they find them, using physical force if necessary.

It began on a busy Cairo street in March, when Bashary saw a female passerby being groped by a teenage boy. Abandoning his commute, he chased the teenager down and grabbed him, roughing him up in the process.

"If he had been older, I would have taken him to the police station, but he was only about 16. So I wanted him to call his parents to come and collect him. They needed to know about his mistake, so that they could set him right," he told GlobalPost.

To make sure the teenager faced his parents, Bashary procured a pair of clear plastic handcuffs from a nearby storeowner and tied the teenager to a tree. When pictures of the bound lad went viral on Facebook, Bashary started getting interview requests from Egyptian newspapers and television channels. Spurred on by the interest, Bashary and several of his friends decided to found Tie up the Harasser.

"In the old days, Egyptians would shave a harasser's head just for insulting a girl on the street, but that attitude is gone," said Mohamed Monem, 28, a co-founder of the group.

Bashary agrees that men need to be encouraged to step up in situations of harassment.

"A lot of guys at work came up to me after the incident and said: 'We agree with you, but we wouldn't do what you did.' So I wanted to set up a group to encourage men to take action against harassers," he said.

Civil society organizations focused on sexual violence say this initiative is part of a broader increase in public awareness, and that it's beginning to show in government policy.

"When we launched in 2010, there was very little discussion of this issue," Noora Flinkman, communications manager at local initiative Harassmap told GlobalPost. "Until recently, the Egyptian media would never use the word harassment, but now it's become common."

Two weeks ago, following several high-profile incidents including an on-campus mob attack on a Cairo University student, Egypt's military-led government announced that the standing law on sexual violence would be amended, and referred a draft article to the cabinet for review.

According to a version of the draft article published by the local press, the amended law will include the term "sexual harassment" for the first time, in place of outdated formulations like "indecent exposure."

The new text defines sexual harassment as stalking, following, harassment by phone or internet, and unwelcome sexual advances. Perpetrators can be jailed for between one to ten years, depending on the severity of the offence, or fined up to LE20,000 ($2,870).

Dalia Abd Elhameed, gender officer at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, said the new article is a "very positive amendment. More complaints of sexual harassment are being filed with the police, so a change to the law is really timely," she told GlobalPost.

But Bashary and his group think their services will still be needed.

"The problem is implementing the law. The police are indifferent," he said. "If you call the police and tell them to come because a girl is being harassed, they will laugh at you."

Bashary believes that "clear orders" from the interior minister could change the way the police deal with harassment incidents, but until then, men need to be prepared to step in and help women who are being harassed.

Advocates working on sexual violence issues agree with Bashary at least insofar as the issue of implementation is concerned. "If society doesn't believe it is a crime, it doesn't matter what the law says," Flinkman said.

But that doesn't mean they're wild about Bashary's vigilantism. Though Flinkman sees new campaigns like Bashary's as "a sign that there is movement on the issue," she acknowledges that "not every new initiative is well thought through."

Social change from below is important, Abd Elhameed said. "But corporal punishment against harassers is also problematic. We don't have the right to implement the law ourselves."

Monem and Bashary, however, see no alternative. Even in issues that don't involve sexual assault, they say, the state cannot be trusted to maintain law and order, and Egyptian society needs a push in the right direction.

"Essam's phone was taken a few months ago by two men," said Monem. "No one stepped in to help, and no one called the police when he managed to grab one of the guys."

Bashary agrees. "The state is absent," he said. "People say we shouldn't make our own justice, but it's chaos on the streets. We have to depend on ourselves."

This article, by Hazel Haddon, originally appeared at GlobalPost.

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