by Mariam Elba
Volunteers of Alexandria: As Safe As Before pose for a photo in Saad Zaghloul Square in Alexandr. (Facebook / Alexandria: As Safe As Before)
“It was the first time in my life I underwent such an experience,” said Abdullah Adel, recalling the time he stopped a group of young men from harassing a young woman walking the downtown streets of Alexandria, Egypt by himself.
At first, the group of four young men, aged between 13 and 19, tried to walk past him, but Adel got in front of them before they were able to reach the young woman. “They tried to grab me by my T-shirt,” he said. But after introducing himself, asking their names, and striking up a conversation, they calmed down. Adel then tried to make them realize the gravity of what they were about to do, asking “What if that woman was one of your friends? What if she was one of your family?” But the question that affected them most was “What if you were the victim? How would you feel if you were afraid to go out even just to have fun?”
The group listened as Adel tried to put them in that woman’s shoes. Then, one of them asked, “Don’t you see the way that girl was dressed? You’re not turned on by that?” He responded by saying, “Do you think they wear tight pants because they want to be harassed?” The group was silent.
Adel told them about the legal consequences — a minimum six-month jail sentence and fine (about $638) would have been very possible if they continued pursuing and harassing the woman.
Eventually, they were convinced. “They wanted to take a picture with me,” Adel said, smiling at his success.
This is the kind of work that anti-street harassment group Alexandria: As Safe As Before has been doing since it first began patrolling the highly-trafficked public spaces in Alexandria last July, while the Eid al-Fitr holiday was in full swing.
Sexual harassment in Egypt continues to plague public spaces throughout the country. Women and girls have reported being harassed everywhere from public transportation to universities to streets within their own neighborhoods. According to the Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights, 83 percent of women have reported experiencing some form of sexual harassment. Meanwhile, the U.N. states that as much as 99 percent have experienced harassment. The issue is typically at its worst during public and national holidays, especially during Eid, when youth typically go out with friends and public spaces become more crowded than usual.
Alexandria: As Safe As Before is run by Karim Mahrous, an activist who has been working with initiatives to eliminate street harassment in Alexandria since 2007. He began his efforts when he founded a multi-city initiative called Welad el Balad, or “Children of the Country.” The name is a reference to a film released that year, which portrayed harassment favorably — as something one of the main female characters enjoyed. The men who participated in the act were seen as doing something cool, and masculine.
This was the precise cultural perception that Mahrous wanted to target. “We have a very strange culture,” he said. When harassment happens, victim blaming is common. So he decided to take the name and make it their own. “You must treat the victim as a victim, not anything else,” Mahrous said. “This name means it’s something originally in our principles, it’s something originally in our society.”
When the January 25 revolution started in 2011, the street harassment epidemic became even more visible with police having no presence on the streets. It was that summer that Welad el Balad had first launched an initiative in Alexandria to patrol the streets, and stop as many incidents of harassment as possible. This was when things took off for the group, and branches in several other cities throughout Egypt developed. They essentially replaced the police in their efforts to prevent as much street harassment as possible.
Mahrous’ method of dealing with street harassment differs greatly from tactics other groups have used. Another prominent group called “Harass the Harasser,” has volunteers that catch harassers in the act and publicly shame them by spray-painting “I’m a harasser” on their clothes. “We cannot use violence against violence,” Mahrous said.
However, since July 2013 — when then-General, now-President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi became the de facto ruler of Egypt — there have been more serious efforts from the government to eliminate sexual harassment, as the sexual harassment epidemic drew international attention. The sexual harassment law, which was passed in June 2014, instituted the jail sentence and fine. Recently, more female police officers have been deployed in the busiest areas across the country in order to address the problem.
Welad el Balad dispersed, but was reborn as Alexandria: As Safe As Before — except this time, they partnered with the local government in Alexandria to carry out their work. Dozens of volunteers were recruited with the help of the governor’s office, and now the volunteers are accompanied by police officers when carrying out their work.
The group’s emphasis on nonviolence appealed to many of the volunteers. “Our motto is: nonviolence, nonviolence, nonviolence. It is essential,” said Bahgat Osama, a college student who volunteers with the organization.
All volunteers undergo screening and an intensive four-day training program, which includes how to observe a potential instance of harassment, role-playing and memorizing the legal rights of a harassment victim, as well as the minimum and maximum punishments for a harasser.
A volunteer of Alexandria: As Safe As Before speaks with a group of young men on street harassment. (WNV / Abdullah Abdel)
Volunteers are split up based on gender, with the men dispersed to spot potential cases of harassment, and the women distributing information to girls and families about victims’ rights and encouraging them to report any case of assault to the police.
Their efforts in patrolling public areas this past July in Alexandria was widely covered by the press — even the local government took notice, something unheard of in the country. The governor of Alexandria, Hany El Mesiry, invited members of the group to city hall and commended their work, promising to help them in their future endeavors. It is not yet clear whether that promise will materialize.
Mahrous claims that during the three-day holiday, when they were patrolling the streets, only five incidents of harassment took place, a number far lower than what may typically happen during Eid. “There was no group harassment at all,” he said, calling it the most dangerous kind of harassment, as it encourages bystanders to join in harassing the victim.
At the same time, it has been increasingly difficult for grassroots initiatives to form and carry out work in public. Since the enactment of the protest law in November 2013, which forbids any kind of political gathering in public unless a group has government permission, political and social public gatherings have been largely avoided.
In spite of these restrictions, initiatives to eliminate or raise awareness on sexual harassment have continued to pop-up and make a presence in public spaces. Artistic initiatives such as ‘ard el shara,’ have established the first student-led informative conference on the harassment epidemic. Another project called BuSSy, or “Look Here,” holds regular performances in formal venues, as well as the Cairo metro, in which actors relay real stories of victims who suffered sexual harassment and perpetrators who admitted to harassing other women, showing how their families are impacted.
Despite Eid al-Adha celebrations beginning on Thursday, Alexandria: As Safe As Before has yet to receive a permit to continue its work in public, even though it has a partnership with the government of Alexandria. “We took more than three months to start a new event license,” Mahrous said. “I don’t know why they are not cooperating.”
Nevertheless, Mahrous has a much larger vision for the organization. “We hope to work every Friday, and we hope to start a program in schools and universities,” that educate students on sexism and harassment.
Since he began working on anti-street harassment activism, Mahrous has noticed a gradual change in the public discourse on the issue. “People realize there are consequences now,” he said. The harasser realizes “it’s not an easy game” and “more victims now think to take action against their abuser” by reporting their cases to the police.
As of now, however, even as they wait for a permit, volunteers are ready to continue their work in the streets. Mahrous believes that in order for street harassment to truly be eliminated, we have to make it an integral part of public discourse. Talking about the epidemic needs to happen in the media. “Our social discourse shapes social behavior,” he explained. “How can we make these views go from macro to micro? We can’t give chances for any abuser to get away with his crime. Victims need to be treated as victims, not anything else.”