An experiment conducted by grassroots media outlet Egyptian Streets found that approximately 95 per cent of calls made to a hotline dedicated to victims of sexual harassment in Egypt were ignored.
Some 15 women who were asked to call the hotline, advertised by the Egyptian National Council of Women (NCW) multiple times over the past two weeks, documented that their calls were rarely answered. Of the some 40 calls that were made, only two were answered; one 57-year-old woman was instructed to call the next day between 9am and 3pm.
The other woman who received an answer attempted to report an incident of harassment experienced by her sister. The advisor asked for details of the alleged incident, but requested details such as the name and license plate of the offender – information not usually known by a victim when assaulted by a stranger on the street.
The experiment was conducted in the run up to a new campaign setup to tackle sexual harassment by award-winning, crowdfunding start up Bassita, alongside the UN, NGOs and several Egyptian government departments. Launched earlier this week, the video features Egyptian actor and musician Hany Adel, as well as actress Menna Shalabi, and encourages men and women to fight back against harassers.
However, the results of the research have cast doubt on the effectiveness of the government hotline, which should be dedicated to providing women who have experienced harassment and assault with help, and directing them to local police or medical facilities where necessary.
“The hotline will not work if someone is not manning it or if that person has not worked with rape survivors … Quite likely, people will be too afraid to report it to the police, which is true everywhere, but minimally through a hotline that is run well, they could at least get psychological help,” Angie Abdelmonem, a postdoctoral research fellow at Arizona State University, said.
Last year the president of the NCW, Maya Morsy claimed that the rate of sexual harassment in Egypt was only 9.6 per cent in 2016, adding that 99 per cent of claims of abuse made by women are not true.
Egypt has also witnessed several high profile arrests of women who have complained of harassment in the country.
In September an Egyptian court sentenced female activist Amal Fathy to two years in jail over a video she posted on social media criticising the government for failing to protect women against sexual abuse and over poor living conditions.
“This is injustice, unjustified and incomprehensible. We have provided all the evidence to prove that she didn’t spread false news,” her husband, Mohamed Lotfy, a human rights activist and executive director of the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms (ECRF) said at the time.
When a woman is subjected to sexual harassment and gets sentenced to two years and fined then this means we are telling all Egyptian women ‘shut your mouths …if you don’t want to go to prison’.
Just weeks before, Egypt released a Lebanese woman who had been sentenced to eight years in prison, after she made a video describing the sexual harassment she had faced during a holiday in the country. Her testimony drew anger from Egyptians on social media, who called for her arrest, despite the woman releasing a subsequent video clarifying that she did not mean to insult the country as a whole.
Harassment has also been identified as a persistent problem in Egypt; a 2017 report from the UN Women and Promundo found that some 60 per cent of women said they had been victims of some form of sexual harassment during their lifetimes. Three-quarters of men and 84 per cent of women polled said that women who “dress provocatively deserve to be harassed”.
In August, Egypt’s highest religious authority, Al-Azhar University, issued a statement denouncing sexual abuse against women and calling for anti-harassment laws to be used to punish perpetrators.
“The holy Al-Azhar asserts that criminalising harassment must be absolute regardless of the context or conditions,” the statement read. “Blaming harassment on a woman’s clothing or behaviour is a wrong way of thinking. Harassment is an attack on a woman’s privacy as well as her dignity and freedom. This appalling phenomenon also leads to the loss of the sense of security,” it said.