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Egyptian Universities Face Pressure to Better Protect Women From Harassment

CAIRO—Most Egyptian universities have adopted policies to combat sexual harassment on campus, but a number of incidents recently disclosed on social media have revealed a clear deficit in implementing these policies.

In early July, an Instagram account called Assault Police began publishing women’s allegations of rape and assault against a former student of the American University in Cairo. More than 100 women have now come forward, some of whom were colleagues of the student at the university when they were assaulted.

Those revelations, in turn, have prompted victims’ advocates to accuse university administrations across the country of negligence and lack of seriousness in dealing with the highly sensitive and dangerous issue of sexual harassment.

Sexual harassment, whether physical or verbal, often causes female students to drop out and stop continuing their education, in addition to having profound physical and psychological effects on its victims.

“Generally, harassment is an attempt to close the public space to women, and universities are one of the most important spaces where women are present,” said Pascale Ghazaleh, an associate professor of history at the American University in Cairo. “This would mainly affect women’s presence and participation in society.”

Ghazaleh noted that universities are part of society and a reflection of the power relations prevailing in it.

“Power relations within academia are violent, which means that the student-professor relationship is not democratic in most universities,” she said. Any power relations within society, “whether class or racial, will be rediscovered on campus,” she added.

“Generally, harassment is an attempt to close the public space to women, and universities are one of the most important spaces where women are present.”

Pascale Ghazaleh  
An associate professor of history at the American University in Cairo

Most of the women who came forward in the Instagram campaign said the assaults had occurred earlier, but they didn’t report them at the time because they were afraid of being blackmailed or because they didn’t know how to report an assault without being defamed.

Egypt’s National Council for Women was one of the first institutions that supported these women and others who have lodged similar complaints. It submitted a report to the Attorney General’s Office urging it to investigate the allegations. The council has also issued a statement calling on all women and girls who fell victim to the accused former AUC student to sue him officially, with promises to protect them from defamation and prevent publication of their personal information.

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A new law passed by Egypt’s Parliament last week and awaiting President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi’s approval would also strengthen protections for people who report sexual harassment and assault.

Meanwhile, authorities have arrested the former student and charged him with sex crimes against at least three women. He has not commented publicly on the accusations against him.

Changes at the American University in Cairo

In its initial response to the allegations, the American University in Cairo issued a statement affirming that it “has zero tolerance for sexual harassment and is committed to maintaining a safe environment for all members of the university community.”

That response was too late and too little for some advocates. The AUC Student Rights Coalition condemned the university’s statement and said administrators had “ignored” complaints against the accused student and erased one complaint that a student had registered on the university platform. The coalition appealed to fellow students to support the victims by disclosing what they were exposed to and sharing their stories with Assault Police, the Instagram page that started the campaign.

These developments prompted the university to reconsider its policy on combating harassment and take steps to address weak points. It plans to provide online training to every member of the university community, including the president and other high-ranking officials, with the aim of raising awareness of sexual harassment, no later than the end of fall 2020, according to Rehab Saad, the university’s senior director of media relations.

The measures also include expanding the scope of the university’s Title IX office, which has been used to receive complaints from students. (Title IX is a U.S. law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex at educational institutions.) The office will be expanded into a new Office of Institutional Equity,  which will report directly to the president’s office and receive complaints of sexual harassment or discrimination from all members of the university community, including students, staff, and faculty, according to Saad.

“The professors behave as if their powers are absolute, and the administration supports this.”

Alaa Khaled  
A student in the Faculty of Arts at Benha University

The university also adopted a system for online reporting of harassment incidents that maintains the confidentiality of the complainant, and launched a page on Facebook called “Speak Up AUC” to provide advice to people who witness or experience any form of harassment.

Gaps in Egyptian Law

Neither Egypt’s Law No. 49 of 1972, which governs university affairs, nor any regulations pertaining to it include the term “harassment” as a violation covered by a specific penalty. However, the Supreme Council of Universities ruled in 2017 that all universities must establish a unit to combat harassment and violence against women. (See a related article, “Arab Women Fight Back Against Online Sexual Harassment.”)

Yet these units do not seem to be effective. In recent years, Egyptian universities witnessed an increasing number of complaints from female students of sexual assaults and other types of harassment by university professors or administrators, who then faced investigations, suspension or dismissal for “breach of duty” or “violating university laws, values and traditions.”

Alaa Khaled, a student in the Faculty of Arts at Benha University, to the east of Cairo, confirmed that harassment had prompted some of her female colleagues to move to other universities. She explained that public disclosure of harassment complaints often has negative consequences for female students, as they are seen as the cause of the harassment and not its victims. The mechanisms for investigating complaints and punishing perpetrators are not “safe” for female victims, she said.

“Such mechanisms promoted by the university are neither safe nor effective,” she said. “The professors behave as if their powers are absolute, and the administration supports this.”

“There must be awareness-raising activities and announced policies that encourage students to file complaints.”

Abdul-Majeed Abu Al-Ela  
A student in the Faculty of Economics and Political Sciences at Beni-Suef University

The lack of evidence in most cases of harassment transforms the woman or girl who complains from a victim to a convicted person who has to apologize for her complaint, Khaled said. She added that a university professor or student who realizes that he is exempt from punishment will keep doing it, whether it’s physical or verbal harassment. (See a related article, “The Fight Against Sexual Harassment on Arab Campuses.”)

The Influence of Social Norms

Naglaa Diab, a professor at Zagazig University’s Faculty of Education, agrees that universities need stricter laws and more effective mechanisms for submitting harassment complaints. She also stresses that the way to confront this crisis should be through legislation.

It is mandatory to determine the lines between the university professor’s powers and the student’s rights, while protecting the reputation of the victims by not revealing their identities, Diab said. 

In most cases at public universities, the harassment is verbal, Diab said, and she believes that the problem is worse at public institutions than at private ones. Reassuring the survivors she meets is difficult, she said.

The situation also differs from one governorate to another. In Upper Egypt, for example, conservative behavior predominates in social relations between the sexes on university campuses that have unofficially adopted gender segregation policies.

”Separation between males and females took different forms on campus,” said Abdul-Majeed Abu Al-Ela, a student at the Faculty of Economics and Political Sciences at Beni-Suef University, in Upper Egypt. “This includes dividing lecture halls between the sexes, an agreed upon method that the university administration uses to protect against any form of harassment.”

However, such measures do not completely prevent incidents of harassment.

“Despite this policy, there are incidents of verbal harassment,” Abu Al-Ela said. “There must be awareness-raising activities and announced policies that encourage students to file complaints.”

Ghazaleh, of the American University in Cairo, believes that the real solution should come from society as a whole, as harassment is a societal issue and not one that occurs exclusively on campuses.

“As long as parents continue to accept and advocate their sons’ behavior, and only blame their girls, university policies alone will not help,” she said.

But Ghazaleh reiterated that educational institutions should not tolerate any forms of harassment or assaults committed on their campuses. “Specific and clear punishments should be imposed to deter harassers from engaging in any behavior on campuses at least,” she said.


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