By Hannah Wilkinson
“She brought it on herself.”
This tired excuse for sexual harassment sounds that much worse coming from the mouth of a 10 year old boy. But during the Eid weekend, patrols of Downtown areas reported sexual harassment being perpetrated by children as young as eight.
Azza Kamel and Fathi Farid, both active in the pressure group I saw Harassment, spent their Eid holiday patrolling harassment hotspots in Downtown with a group of volunteers, dressed in red and white t-shirts, bearing the organisation’s logo. I Saw Harassment is one of many groups in Cairo campaigning to end the phenomenon of sexual violence in Cairo’s streets which is said of have affected over 90% of the women who live in the capital.
I Saw Harassment is active throughout the year, campaigning and raising awareness of the issue of sexual violence. This Eid holiday the group attempted to facilitate the kind of festive activities they believe everyone should have the right to partake in without fear, such as a trip to the cinema or hanging out with friends.
Volunteers patrolled areas such as Tahrir Square, Talart Harb Street and around the Rivoli Cinema, monitoring the situation and interfering in instances of harassment. The incidents witnessed indicate the depth of the problem of sexual violence in Egypt, and the urgency for national dialogue on the subject.
“The age of the harassers gets lower every year,” explained Kamel, reporting that she had seen children from eight to ten years old committing acts of sexual violence. “They have no awareness, no idea of sexual feelings…and yet they know they’re doing something wrong.”
Farid blames a number of factors, including violent sexual behaviour children see in the media, the violence children have witnessed around them in recent events and a style of parenting which favours boys over girls, regardless of behaviour.
Farid hears these young boys justify sexual attacks on other children on the basis of the girl’s perceived impropriety. “They say it’s because they’re not wearing hijab,” Farid reported. Girls are not normally required to wear the hijab until after they reach puberty.
Women have also been told that harassment only happens to women who walk out alone. During this Eid, Farid reported seeing groups of women sexually attacked when walking with other men. Groups of people would set upon them, beat the man, and sexually harass the woman.
“People now feel like it is their right to commit harassment.” Farid is worried by the fact that harassment no longer seems to be something the perpetrator is ashamed of. “If you steal someone’s mobile phone, you run off straight afterwards because you know you are a criminal,” he explained.
“Now when people harass, they don’t run away anymore. They just stand there.”
I Saw Harassment’s strategy is to extract the girl from the situation as soon as possible, and once she is safe to enquire as to whether she would like to report the incident. They also attempt to open up a dialogue with the harasser in order to change his mind and understand the motives behind his actions. “We want to avoid violent intervention,” said Farid, emphasising that this decision has much to do with the age of many perpetrators of harassment.
Although more needs to be done on an official level to combat sexual harassment, Kamel is encouraged by how many people are talking about the issue. During the interview the phone did not stop ringing. “We have a lot of people who want to volunteer,” Farid smiled.
Despite the potential danger of the job, 63% of the volunteers are female. “Women have a feeling of power after 25 January,” Kamel said, “a feeling that they can go anywhere and they will not be afraid.” A further 20% of those girls who volunteer have suffered from sexual violence themselves. Ensuring that what happened to them will not happen to anyone else is their way of turning negative experience into a positive one. “By volunteering to help others, they are not victims, they are survivors,” Kamel said.