CAIRO – Images of burns shaped like handprints on bare women’s bodies didn’t last long at an art exhibit about sexual harassment last semester at the American University in Cairo. Outraged over the provocative prints, students demanded they be torn down.
The controversy was part of the point: To shock viewers into thinking about sexual harassment in this part of the world where the offense is often endemic.
“Sexual harassment is in the public sphere. It’s everywhere,” said Heba Hesham, co-founder of Heya, a student-founded women’s rights initiative that helped organize the exhibit.
Harassment is not only rife on Egypt’s streets but pervades university campuses from Tunis to Amman to Libya’s Tripoli, and women – and men – are working against it.
“There is a definite need for a women’s empowerment organization on the university level,” said Hesham, a university senior who launched Heya last year. “We thought it was a crucial issue.”
In a survey conducted by the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights, 83 percent of Egyptian women reported that they had been sexually harassed, according to a 2008 report. Most harassers are men between 19 and 24 years old, the survey found, and 46 percent of women say they are harassed daily.
On university campuses, data has been harder to collect. Cairo University and Ain Shams University both rejected a request by the women’s rights group to distribute surveys about sexual harassment on their campuses in 2006. While Cairo University later reversed its decision, state security halted the effort.
Regardless, sexual harassment is incessant for Egyptian women and experienced in shopping centers, streets, demonstrations, and academic workplaces. Men may stare, grope, grab, and jostle women, who may also be the subject of catcalls, whistles, offensive gestures and unwanted pressure for dates. The problem has recently spiraled out of control as numerous cases of brutality and gang rape have been documented across the capital. While the state does little to arrest or prosecute offenders, a growing number of youth organizations are emerging to fight sexual violence.
Through technology and community outreach, HarassMap helps victims report cases of harassment, which are mapped online, and uses the information to speak with people in affected neighborhoods, urging them to intervene in abuse. The group seeks to “end the social acceptability of harassment in Egypt” and plans to extend anti-harassment activities and programs to schools and universities this year.
“We have a lot of university students and professors and people associated with universities who want to do activities on their campus, and we want to help them with how to do that,” said Rebecca Chiao, co-founder of HarassMap. “The problem that they [relate] is people are getting harassed badly in universities by professors or university staff, and also students are harassing.”
University administrators are not eager to speak with journalists about sexual harassment, likely for fear of suggesting that their institution may have a problem, but some institutions do have established policies for filing grievances, suggesting that the issue is being taken seriously.
“Sexual harassment is a particular form of discriminatory harassment that diminishes the dignity of offenders and victims; damages their professional careers and educational experiences; and interferes with the University’s ability to achieve its mission,” the American University of Beirut’s policy says.
But such statements don’t always stop the problem.
Journalist and blogger Alaa Chehayeb founded U-Harass.org in 2012 to document cases in which professors sexually harass students in Lebanon. “It was really shocking that a professor, a highly educated person, is doing such a thing,” Chehayeb said. “One of the surprising things is that there is a good number of physically harassed students, not only verbal harassment.”
According to the website’s data, nearly 18 percent of 221 women surveyed online from institutions including the American University of Beirut, Universite Antonine and Beirut Arab University were harassed by their professors. Chehayeb sought to encourage women to defy taboo to and speak out about assaults. In an interview published on the site, a victim at the Lebanese University said she was fearful of receiving low marks and creating a scandal, so didn’t report her professor.
And when cases are reported, universities may not take immediate action. “What is common to universities is that we’ve never so far heard of a professor being fired after an incident of sexual harassment,” said Nadine Moawad, a member of Nasawiya, a women’s rights organization in Beirut that holds events at universities. “Instead they will wait until the end of their contract and not renew it. They like to keep it hush hush.”
Abuse by professors also persists in Tunisia even though it is among the most liberal of Arab states and sexual harassment is punishable by law. Rights groups say the legislation is weak and its impact is limited.
The president of the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women, Ahlem Belhadj, said she heard of many cases in which students do not receive good evaluations if they refuse sexual relations with professors.
Since the nation’s revolution, however, harassment victims receive more support from the educational system, which is more open about violence, Belhadj said. “The leadership is elected, the university officials are elected, and people have developed the ability to talk about violence, which is very important,” she added.
One out of six women questioned in a recent national survey reported being victims of sexual violence in Tunisia. In the public sphere, violence against women is sexual in 21 percent of cases, according to a report released by the Tunisian National Office of Population and Family and the Spanish Agency for International Development Cooperation. Students were among the survey respondents.
Students at the University of Jordan addressed the issue in their country last fall by making a short film for their feminist theory class. In the video, female students hold posters baring incendiary remarks they hear daily: ‘Juicy bottom,’ ‘Fine piece,’ ‘How about we get dirty.’
But fighting such efforts in Jordan’s education system – as elsewhere – is challenging. The professor who supervised the student movie was reportedly fired over concerns about the reputation of the university, sparking indignation among rights groups over breach of academic freedom and the focus on the production of the film rather than the problem it highlighted.
“No one at the university wanted to hold a conference to discuss the issue of sexual harassment on campus,” wrote Nermeen Murad, a columnist for The Jordan Times. “No one wanted to discuss whether this kind of video — essentially aiming to shame the young men — was a useful tool in tackling this issue.” Instead, the young women who produced the film were intimidated into silence and the supervising professor faced a smear campaign, she wrote. “We should review our moral yardstick,” Murad added.
In Libya, the prevalence of sexual harassment varies between universities but is common nationwide, said Israa Murabit, a second-year university student and vice-president of the Voice of Libyan Women. “There is social conditioning that it’s OK to be disrespectful in the public space.”
As the nation goes through political transitions in the wake of the nation’s 2011 uprising, forces in favor of civil society seek legislation punishing domestic violence and banning sexual harassment, Murabit said. Even if laws look promising on paper, though, she said enforcement will still be an issue.
Voice of Libyan Women recently held an awareness campaign at schools, universities, mosques and public parks in 17 cities to focus on Islamic values that encourage positive treatment of women. The aim was to illustrate that the religion does not accept domestic violence and abusive practices like sexual harassment.
“It’s actually being broached as an issue,” Murabit said. “And speaking in terms of violence in general – whether that’s verbal harassment or physical violence in the home – on all levels it is being addressed whereas before it never would have been spoken about.”
Contributing: Sumi Somaskanda and Charles McPhedran in Berlin, Emma Gatten in Beirut.