CAIRO—Three years ago, when a mob of law school students assaulted a young woman on the campus of Cairo University, American studies professor Maha El Said wondered why the school didn’t have a policy against sexual harassment.
“I thought to myself, ‘It really is time to have one,’” she said. An anti-harassment working group focused on the issue was formed in March of 2014, and a policy went into effect in July of the same year.
The perpetrators of the 2014 incident were suspended for one semester, while the woman suffered no permanent injuries. Now, after small but steady increases in the numbers of harassment complaints and investigations, El Said leads the university’s anti-harassment unit that has forced out at least three professors on harassment charges and raised awareness throughout the country’s leading public university.
“The fact that we are investigating more cases each year doesn’t mean the problem is growing,” said Cairo University President Gaber Nassar, a law school professor who drafted the university’s anti-harassment policy. “Women on campus are increasingly unafraid to file complaints and see the university as a place where harassment will not be tolerated.”
Egypt’s premier private institution of higher education, the American University in Cairo, followed U.S. academic accreditation standards and adopted anti-harassment rules more than 20 years ago. Similar rules are in force at the American University of Beirut.
But Cairo University was the first public higher education institution in Egypt to prohibit sexual harassment. Given that the university has 300,000 students in 25 schools throughout Cairo, the unit has a big job, El Said said.
“Dr. Nassar told us we needed to think of ways to reach everybody,” she said.
A recent United Nations survey found that more than 99 percent of Egyptian women experienced sexual harassment in their lifetimes.
To raise awareness of the issue, the anti-harassment unit has held events that included a marching parade with the music department’s Brass Sound Band in November of last year, a bicycle race in December and a marathon at the suburban Sheikh Zayed campus in March.
“We received around 300 applications from students who wanted to join the unit just after the musical parade,” El Said said. “This program is attracting women and men looking both to make a difference and to find leadership opportunities.”
In the first year, administrators investigated three cases of harassment. In the second year, it was 12 cases. Last year, it was 37, said Nassar.
University officials didn’t release the names of the fired professors. They declined to provide details of student punishments, but said students had been expelled for a week or more. Students could also face expulsion from the university under the policy.
“People saw that we were not kidding and were taking the complaints seriously,” said Nasser, who is due to resign from the presidency in July and return to his previous job as a law professor.
Ghada Ali, an assistant commerce professor and deputy director of the anti-harassment unit, said the effort had changed the climate toward women on campus.
“After we started handling complaints, women on campus started believing in us,” said Ali.
Hinar Ahmed, a 21-year-old student in the commerce faculty, says he hopes the anti-harassment movement will spread beyond the gates of the university to Egyptian society at large.
“Our aim is to break the silence about sexual harassment,” Ahmed said. “Our goal is to make universities safe and then gradually the whole environment will be safe. This is the biggest student-faculty movement on campus today. I am especially encouraged by the number of male students who are joining the campaign.”
Mohamed Mahmoud Raafat, a 23-year-old anti-harassment trainer and agriculture student, believes the campus climate for women has improved as the unit has confronted male attitudes head on.
“We no longer hide from this issue,” Raafat said. “We know that we have a problem and are fixing it. In contrast with the street, here on campus people are facing consequences if they break the rules.”
Farha Nader, a 20-year-old third-year undergraduate economics student, admired the energy of unit’s activities but saw inconsistencies.
“The unit is active and working hard, but while students are not harassing girls so much there is still a problem with campus security guards,” she said. “Some of the guards prevent women students from entering the campus because of their clothes. This is contrary to the fight against harassment.”
University officials acknowledged there is still work to do.
“We are training security personnel and we can’t yet claim to have reached everybody with the campaign and, yes, there is pushback from some departments,” said El Said.
Nassar recently directed the anti-harassment team to start new programs at the medical school and the university’s six teaching hospitals.
“What I can claim is that we have empowered women to speak up,” said El Said. “What Gaber Nassar did was demonstrate that every single person regardless of where he is in the hierarchy faces the charges.”
Ali was confident that Nassar’s replacement would continue the anti-harassment drive. A new president is expected to be named after Ramadan ends in late June.
“All the candidates who have been nominated to succeed Dr. Nassar have expressed admiration for the way he built and led the anti-harassment effort,” Ali said. “Because of the student participation and widespread faculty leadership in almost every department, I’m sure the next president will follow successfully in his approach.”