Some Egyptians worry that reporting assaults could hurt their marriageability in a country where most women cover their hair to protect their modesty. Emad, 22, is one of just a few women in Egypt who have pursued harassment charges against an assailant, a process that requires a lengthy investigation and several courtroom appearances.
When the groping occurred earlier this summer, she said, many bystanders at the scene urged her to let the man go, she said. But Emad said that if she didn’t do anything, the problem would only get worse.
“I have a real problem with girls not speaking up,” Emad said. “It’s not something that they should be ashamed of. It’s something they should be angry about.”
Bringing it into the open hadn’t been easy, she said. “I’m single, so I was worried that it would be a black mark for when I get married,” she said.
Since the street protests that toppled President Hosni Mubarak in February 2011, many Egyptians have complained that day-to-day security has been worse, a byproduct of the reduced presence of a police force that used to serve as the enforcers of the old regime. On Cairo’s packed, rumbling subways, men sometimes clamber into the train cars reserved for women. In the bustling downtown, groups of young boys have pursued women through the streets.
Now, citizens are taking matters into their own hands. Efforts in recent weeks have won praise from advocates for women’s rights, who say that the biggest step in fighting the problem is talking about it.
One recent day, two dozen volunteers fanned over the sidewalk in front of a mall in Nasr City, a middle-class district in Cairo. Amid honking horns and the crisp smell of roasting corn from street venders, they stopped pedestrians to ask them about harassment.
“What do you do if someone harasses you?” Noha Yousry, a 32-year-old teacher, asked three girls who were wearing head scarves.
“We’re quiet, and then we leave,” one of the girls said.
“There are young boys who really bug you and touch people,” said another.
“Never be quiet,” Yousry said.
But others with whom the volunteers talked had different ideas.
“Have you ever seen someone harassing a woman who is wearing a face veil?” said Ahmed Farouk, 35, who works at an advertising agency. “Society is developing for the worse, not just the way girls dress, but also manners and behavior more generally.” But he said that harassment is a problem.
In fact, many women say that those who wear the niqab — the head-to-toe black garment that leaves only a slit for the eyes — are subject to the same whistles and grabs.