In 2012, young Egyptian female and male activists launched a number of groups dedicated to ending public sexual violence, or PSV. They sought to end sexual harassment — ranging from catcalls to groping women’s bodies — on the street and in public transit, and to stop mass sexual assault on major shopping boulevards during the Eid holidays or political protests, when groups of men grabbed and stripped women, and in some cases raped them with sharp objects.
This activism represents the kind of change political scientists often miss. Democracy advocates and political scientists alike tend to focus on quantifiable changes in electoral politics, laws and constitutions. But how can we measure less tangible changes in societal norms that may have even more impact on securing citizens’ daily freedoms? Though Egypt has not witnessed the democratic blossoming many had hoped for in the immediate aftermath of the uprisings, discourse on key social issues has evolved in significant ways.
In the decade before Hosni Mubarak’s February 2011 overthrow, women’s rights activism in Egypt focused on improving girls’ and women’s legal rights in the private sphere, including increasing access to divorce and raising girls’ marriage age. This activism was led by female lawyers, professors and other professionally accomplished, primarily middle-aged women.
In contrast with earlier women’s rights activism, the main objective of the 2012 anti-PSV work done by groups, such as Basma, Anti-Harassment Movement and Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment/Assault (OpAntiSH), was not legal change. While activists took pride in 2014 amendments to the penal code on harassment, a major short-term goal was to physically intervene to prevent instances of PSV — that is, until President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi’s crackdown on activism in public spaces rendered this impossible. The long-term objective remains changing the norms used to justify PSV.
What allowed this new form of activism to emerge, and how does it matter? In addition to the creation of new youth movements, significant structural change in the Egyptian TV sphere after 2011 markedly expanded televised discussions of public sexual violence. This coverage has helped to spread and normalize two arguments central to anti-PSV activism: that perpetrators are engaging in an unacceptable, and criminal, form of behavior, not excusable by any form of women’s dress; and that it is the responsibility of all Egyptians — everyday citizens and leaders alike — to work to stop it.
Privately owned satellite TV channels — as opposed to programming created directly by state agencies on state channels — are widely viewed in Egypt, with cost not a significant barrier due to the ubiquity of illegal access. Coverage of PSV on satellite TV began during the late Mubarak era, but until December 2010 it was episodic and usually in reaction to high-profile events. In 2006, a group of men grabbed and stripped women in front of a Cairo cinema during Eid celebrations, and no TV station discussed the assaults for three days until activist Nawara Negm appeared on an episode of Mona al-Shazly’s “al Ashira Mas’aan” show discussing Ramadan soap operas. Negm’s on-air suggestion that the guests address the assaults instead led al-Shazly to interview bystanders and ask the Ministry of Interior for a response. Al-Shazly returned to harassment issues with an October 2008 interview with Noha Rushdy, the first woman to sue her harasser in court.
More regular coverage of PSV would only begin two months before Mubarak was overthrown, in December 2010, as hosts began covering new anti-PSV initiatives. This included an interview with Engy Ghozlan, a co-founder of HarassMap, the first major organization dedicated to stopping PSV, which had opened only one month earlier.
In the months after Mubarak’s overthrow, the satellite media landscape changed dramatically. While only five private satellite channels existed in January 2011, by September, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces had licensed 16 new satellite stations, including the Muslim Brotherhood’s Misr 25. As the number and ideological diversity of satellite programs increased, new types of programming also emerged, including the investigative journalism program “Awwal al-Kheit” and humor programs, such as “Hukumat Nuss al-Layl” and Bassem Youssef’s “al-Birnamij.” These new programs publicized the work and mainstreamed the narratives of anti-PSV groups.
It is possible, but unlikely, that the significant increase in TV coverage of PSV after Mubarak’s overthrow was simply a reflection of an enormous increase in the phenomenon itself post-2011. Sexual harassment was widespread under Mubarak, with a 2008 survey in three governorates by the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights finding that 83 percent of women had been harassed, 46 percent on a daily basis. A 2013 U.N. survey of women in seven governorates found that 99 percent of women had experienced harassment, with 49 percent saying it occurred daily. Studies asking women whether harassment has increased since Mubarak’s overthrow have found a range of results, from unanimous reports of increases in one study to more equivocal responses in the U.N. Women 2013 poll. However, one clear change in the post-2011 period was the emergence of mass sexual assaults at protests.
Mass assaults were not unknown during the Mubarak era, including the 2006 Eid attacks, but the number and brutality of such attacks increased dramatically at protests between 2012 and 2014, with groups like Tahrir Bodyguard and OpAntiSH created to rescue women assaulted in Tahrir protests. Many TV programs took these attacks as a springboard from which to discuss PSV more generally. But the activism of new anti-PSV groups also played a key role in pushing the issue onto the agenda and shaping how it was discussed, from programs that detailed how anti-harassment and assault groups worked to the many TV hosts who allotted significant airtime to activists.
Challenging dominant discourses: Does women’s dress cause harassment?
The most widespread “justification” for PSV is that women’s “improper” appearance — a category that could include lack of veiling and wearing form-fitting clothing — causes harassment. In the U.N. Women 2013 survey, the most prominent reason men gave for harassing women was dress, with 73 percent of men indicating that “the girl’s dress was not decent and revealed her body contours” as a reason for harassment.
Several new satellite shows tackled this issue head on. An April 2014 episode of the comedy show “Hukumat Nuss al-Layl” opened with the host, surrounded by mannequins covered in white sheets, scoffing at claims that women bore no responsibility for harassment. The host uncovered the first mannequin to show a female form in a sleeveless bandeau and tight pants and asked, “what about this woman isn’t asking to be harassed?” Each mannequin that he uncovered was more conservatively dressed than the previous one. As he undraped the last mannequin, he asked, “what respectable woman who doesn’t want to be harassed would walk in the street dressed like this?” while uncovering a form dressed in a black niqab only showing the eyes and a voluminous black dress. Later in the segment the host interviewed Tahrir Bodyguard member Mary Awadallah about myths and realities surrounding PSV.
The extent to which women-blaming narratives have been increasingly challenged can be seen in the fact that they are beginning, on occasion, to be rejected even on Islamist programs. On an October 2012 episode of “Sitt al-Banaat,” a talk show aimed at women on the Muslim Brotherhood’s Misr 25 channel, host Shahinaz Mahmoud rejected the idea that women were responsible for harassment and praised women who reported their harassers to the police. While another host, Nour Abdullah, suggested that “immodest” dress might facilitate harassment, the segment was dominated by a psychologist who insisted that even public nakedness could not legitimize harassment, a narrative strengthened by an interview with activists from Basma, best known for forming groups to stop Eid harassment, and Against Harassment.
Even Salafi channels, which feature repeated invectives against women in the public sphere, are not immune. On a February 2013 episode of the show “Masabih al-Buyut” on the Salafi al-Hafeth channel, an Islamist-leaning professor of criminal law, a member of the upper house of parliament from the Muslim Brotherhood’s ruling Freedom and Justice Party and Ayman Nagy of Against Harassment debated the causes of PSV. Unsurprisingly, the guests disagreed strongly with Nagy on the role of women’s dress, with the law professor arguing that it facilitated harassment while Nagy responded that “we [men] are not animals walking in the street … [as if] I have to attack any woman I walk behind.” More surprising was that host Ahmed Baha repeatedly contested his guests’ claims that “inappropriate” dress facilitated PSV, at one point arguing that in the 1960s and 1970s there was much less harassment despite the fact that most women were unveiled and many wore short skirts.
In a clear sign of changing social narratives, talk show host Riham Sa’id was suspended after an October broadcast in which she showed private photos of a woman who had been assaulted in a mall and suggested that more conservative dress would have prevented such assault, leading advertisers on the show to withdraw their sponsorship.
Questions of accountability
Activists assert that all citizens need to fight PSV and hold leaders accountable for encouraging or neglecting it. The work of everyday citizens against harassment has been lauded by hosts across the political spectrum, from the liberal Bassem Youssef, who praised activists from OpAntiSH and Tahrir Bodyguard as “people who are really making a difference,” to the previously mentioned Muslim Brotherhood “Sitt al-Banaat” program, whose hosts extolled their activist guests as “beautiful and positive.” More important, satellite TV has also facilitated challenges of both Islamist and military leaders. In November 2012, Azza Soliman, then the director of the Center for Egyptian Women’s Legal Assistance, and a leader of I Saw Harassment, appeared on ONTV’s program “al Sura al Kamila.” Host Liliane Daoud confronted Saad Amara, a Freedom and Justice Party leader, with recent statements by Muslim Brotherhood leaders blaming women for harassment, after which the activists sparred with Amara and Nader al-Bakkar, the then-spokesman for the Salafi al-Nour party.
Even as criticism of the Sissi government has slowed to a trickle in satellite media, an assault on women at the mass celebrations of Sissi’s June 2014 election prompted pro-Sissi talk show host Lamis Hadidi to excoriate the minister of health for public hospitals’ lackadaisical response.
It is too early to tell definitively whether the changing discourse about PSV in the satellite media is decreasing harassment on the ground. But the development and spread of a changing narrative reminds us of something that political scientists often forget – that the results of periods of political upheaval cannot be measured only by changes in the formal political sphere, and that “revolutions,” which so far have definitively failed to usher in stable, liberal politics, can nonetheless advance important social changes.
Vickie Langohr is an associate professor of political science at the College of the Holy Cross.