High-tech answer to harassment on Egypt’s streets

2010-10-25 07:57

Cairo – It’s a problem most women in the Egyptian capital has experienced – leering, whistles, groping or other sexual harassment on Cairo’s thoroughfares and backalleys. Soon they’ll be able to instantly speak out on the Internet when it happens.

A planned website, Harrasmap, will allow women to quickly report instances of harassment via text message or Twitter, to be loaded onto a digital map of Cairo to show hotspots and areas that might be dangerous for women to walk alone. The data will be shared with activists, media, and police.

“The whole idea is to have user-generated information,” said Engy Ghozlan, one of the volunteer activists organising the programme, which is set to launch in the coming months. Simply feeling that she is not alone, Ghozlan said, can help a woman who is feeling powerless. “It’s actually encouraging to know that,” she said.

The map could also give a graphic depiction of the extent of a problem that women say is pervasive in Egypt, but which authorities are only starting to acknowledge. A 2008 survey by the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights found that 83 percent of Egyptian women and 98 percent of foreign women living in Cairo said they had been harassed in some way – and 62 percent of men admitted to harrassing.

But until recently, the issue was rarely dealt with publicly. Only after web videos of women being molested in the street by crowds of young men during a holiday four years ago did media begin discussing the problem. Since then, a bill outlining criminal punishment for sexual harassment has gone to parliament, though it has yet to vote on it.

And some in power seem unconvinced the phenomenon is widespread. First Lady Suzanne Mubarak, who often touts herself as an advocate for women’s issues, dismissed it as a media exaggeration, saying in 2008: “Maybe a few scatterbrained youths are behind this crime.”

Why so widespread?
There are numerous theories as to why harassment is so common in Cairo.

Some attribute it to a growing Muslim conservatism spreading the idea that women should stay out of the public sphere. Others cite widespread unemployment among the youth, leaving them bored, frustrated and unable to marry.

Many Egyptians see a broader breakdown of courtesy and morals, a malaise from Egypt’s poor economy and political stagnation.

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