Cairo: For several years, Maha Abbas, a female medical student, has avoided going to central Cairo at national festivities when mass sexual harassment usually peaks. Maha thinks of visiting the area, which houses Egypt’s most famous cinemas houses and shopping centres during the Muslim festival Eid Al Fitr, expected to start in Egypt on Monday. She has her reasons for the change of heart.
“I think any harasser will think a thousand times before daring to assault or even pester a girl after the recent court sentences against those involved in Tahrir sexual attacks,” she said.
Last week, an Egyptian court gave nine men sentences ranging from life and 20 years in prison after convicting them of a series of mob sexual attacks on women in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. The assaulted women were celebrating the inauguration of recently elected President Abdul Fattah Al Sissi in early June when the defendants preyed on them.
The sexual attacks, which occurred on June 3 and 8, triggered an outrage inside and outside Egypt and prompted Al Sissi to visit one victim at a hospital where he vowed in televised remarks a draconian crackdown on sexual harassment.
The sentences have been the toughest in Egypt since the country criminalized sex harassment in late May. The rulings were issued less than two months after the incidents occurred, marking a rare departure from the lengthy judicial procedures that may take years in Egypt.
“The president [Al Sissi] and the judiciary have proved that this inhuman and disgusting behaviour will no longer go unpunished. This is encouraging,” said Suheir Talaat, a mother of three girls. “I used to prevent my daughters from going to cinemas and public gardens on Eid for fear that they would be subjected to harassment. Now the situation is different. They will go out this Eid to enjoy themselves, fearing nothing. The harassers are the ones, who should be afraid of public humiliation and punishment.”
Egypt has experienced a sharp increase in street sexual offences since the police system collapsed at the peak of a 2011 revolt against the regime of president Hosni Mubarak.
Tahrir, the epicentre of the anti-Mubarak uprising, has since seen several mass sexual attacks.
A UN report released last year found that 99.3 per cent of women in Egypt have been subjected to sexual harassment.
Following the recent incidents, the Interior Ministry, in charge of security in Egypt, has set up an anti-harassment unit, officially called the “Department of Combat of Violence against Women”. Police said the unit personnel will be deployed on busy streets and outside theatres during the three-day Eid, which marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan.
“These forces, supported by female police, will eliminate the phenomenon of harassment and violence against women,” Interior Minister Mohammad Ibrahim said this week.
Several anti-harassment campaigners have unveiled plans to be present in central Cairo and other areas frequented by Eid celebrants. The non-governmental group “I Saw Harassment” has said it will distribute around 4,000 leaflets during the Eid holiday listing the lawful penalties against street sexual offences and numbers of hotlines set up to receive reports.
“Cheer up, take to the streets and confront harassers with the law,” the group said in a statement, addressing women. “Don’t allow anyone to violate your rights including the right to walk in safe streets.”
Some women remain skeptical, however.
“The court rulings and measures are fine, but they are not enough to make me feel safe in crowded areas,” said Marwa Mahmoud, a 20-year-old Cairo girl. “Changing the situation requires changing society’s view that blames the girl for being subjected to harassment,” she said. “You often hear people reprimand the victim and tell her, ‘If you had been decently dressed, you would not have been harassed’. First we need to recognize girls as full human beings with equal rights to men before we can talk about safe streets for them.”