Crowdsourcing Sexual-Assault Prevention

Two years after Mohamed Bouazizi lit himself on fire in an act of protest that sparked revolutions across the Middle East, the Arab Spring smolders with grief and a lingering sense of lost purpose. For Egyptians, their revolution’s anniversary is both a joyful remembrance and a haunting torment, a reminder that while one Pharaoh was toppled another still reigns. 

For Egypt's women, the lack of political freedom is especially acute. The 2011 uprising featured a kaleidoscope of head scarves in Tahrir Square and the winding city avenues rumbled not just with furious men but with daring, defiant women. But since then, the revolution has exposed and aggravated Egypt’s gender inequality; harassment of women—especially politically active ones—has become a troublingly regular feature of the country’s day to day existence.

Charged with heightened symbolism and exposed to the harsh light of international press, several episodes mark the disarray and discord of revolutionary Egypt.  After being beaten and electrocuted in March 2011, seven women were forced to remove their clothes and subjected to “virginity tests” at a military installation. Later that year images captured “the girl in the blue bra,” dragged and clubbed by security forces in Cairo, the woman’s abaya was ripped off and pulled over her face, revealing her limp, naked torso. One soldier stomped on her rib cage.     

While these grisly incidents—described by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as the “systemic degradation of women”—might be seen as just another part of the revolutionary chaos, they are in fact tied to insidious social norms in the country that permit sexual harassment and predate the Arab Spring.   

In a notorious Arabic ad from 2007, women were depicted as two kinds of lollipops. One, whose wrapper was removed, was covered with flies (male harassment).  The other—wrapper still on—attracted minimal insect attention. Clumsy and factually incorrect, this chauvinistic logic uses the Muslim headscarf as a symbol of patriarchy and control, when in fact, one might choose to wear the veil—or not to—for a multitude of reasons.  It also erroneously equates conservative dress with an absence of harassment. 

In demonstrations reignited by the anniversary of the first protests of the Arab Spring, the threat of sexual violence is tangible. Many Egyptians believe the government itself orchestrates mob attacks against women.  And equally repulsive, the documented cases of state-sponsored harassment seem to incite similar behavior among civilians. “Under a corrupt and brutal regime,” Wendell Steavenson writes in the New Yorker, “corruption and brutality can spread by example through society.”

Activist groups like @TahrirBodyguard now offer group protection to women (and men) who wish to protest in public. Stationed at watchtowers in Tahrir Square, wearing colored vests and helmets, the volunteers hope to embolden the Egyptian people. Their overarching message evokes the first days of the Arab Spring, when class, religion, and gender dissolved into righteous solidarity.  

Yet another occurrence, sadly typical for Egypt's women, happened to Rebecca Chiao in 2005 on a crowded Cairo street where she stood waiting for a friend, dressed in long, loose clothing.

As she tells it, a man unbuttoned his pants, exposing and touching himself while staring at Chiao. The man continued to violate her space with no fear or shame. No one in the public area intervened. Some people began to look at her with disgust. 

“Even though harassment was hard to talk about back then, almost everyone we talked to had a story,” Chiao recalls in a January TEDx talk. "Most of the stories though, came with reasons, blaming the victim not the harasser.”

An American, Chiao moved to Cairo in 2004 to work for a local NGO, but since this frightening episode, she has been collecting similar stories. With HarassMap, the volunteer initiative she co-founded in 2010 and currently directs in Egypt, Chiao strives to end the social acceptability of sexual harassment that has increased over the past decade, for reasons only partially explained by economic, political, and religious turmoil.

HarassMap collects reports of sexual harassment throughout the country and maps those incidences online. “Victims of and witnesses to harassment can tell us what happened and where – through an SMS short code, our website, email, Facebook or Twitter,” Eba’a El-Tamami, HarassMap’s head of Marketing and Communications, told me in an email interview.

Rather than target individual offenders, HarassMap’s goal is to empower Egyptians, and through crowdsourcing, alter the attitudes of victims, bystanders and the culture at large. The reporting and mapping system addresses “the feeling of isolation and give(s) a voice to those who would otherwise hesitate to speak,” Chiao explained. “Offline, each report receives an auto-response telling victims how to access free services from NGOs: psychological counseling, free lawyers, how to make a police report, self-defense classes.” The organization has also gathered multiple surveys from almost 10,000 Egyptian women and since its inception, has documented and plotted nearly 950 reports of harassment and receives about 20,000 page views a month.

With four co-founders, eight full time employees and a volunteer network of 500 members, HarassMap’s operation has spread to nine governorates across Egypt, including Alexandria and Port Said. Using momentum generated online, workers engage with community members on the ground. Policemen, shopkeepers, and doormen are canvassed to lend their support, pledging to take action if they witness harassment. The cafes and vendors who vow to change street culture are also mapped online, encouraging Egyptians to patronize those businesses and to follow their example., available in English, French, and Arabic, features an interactive map indicating where harassment has occurred.  The display can be manipulated to show events by date, geography, and incident type.   

According to El-Tamami, this year HarassMap will expand its community mobilization effort into schools and additional cities in Egypt. The grassroots group also started a safe vehicles program in public transportation and is working to develop a presence in slum areas, while activists in Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Palestine have launched their own HarassMap.

Though observers of gender-based violence point to underlying causes such as economic depression, religious fundamentalism, or even erotic frustration, HarassMap views sexual harassment as “a symptom of many interrelated societal issues that require further investigation and research,” El-Tamami said. Citing a 2008 survey by the Egyptian Center for Women's Rights, Chiao points out that 72 percent of women who are harassed are veiled and notes that HarassMap marks each incident and includes a text of the report. “This helps us to break stereotypes,” she said. “Stereotypes like, ‘it only happens in cities,’ or ‘it only happens in rich areas,’ or ‘it only happens in poor areas,’ or in dark alleyways, or to veiled women or to not-veiled women, or to foreigners, or even only to girls.”

The continued unrest will surely complicate efforts to make strides for women’s rights, but while this work is made more difficult, its goals are no less necessary. Egypt’s “two revolutions,” the one fostered by the people and the other forged by women, are both about one thing: human dignity.

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