The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Egypt’s sexual harassment pandemic — and the powerlessness of hashtags

In Cairo, two photos show graffiti of a woman with the words “no harassment” in Arabic — and the later addition by another artist of a stick figure touching her backside. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo, File)

The headlines don’t stop. They speak of the mass abduction of schoolgirls kidnapped by Nigerian terrorists in March, sold off for $12, and never heard from again.

They speak of gang-rapes in India, where a woman is sexually assaulted every 20 minutes and where two girls who recently ventured into the fields to use the bathroom were gang-raped and hanged from mango trees.

And they speak of Egypt. There, in the middle of throbbing mass of celebrators reveling in President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s recent inauguration, a woman was stripped naked days ago and sexual assaulted by a mob of men. Her backside, as shown in a now-viral YouTube video, was bruised and blackened before her limp form was carted off to a waiting vehicle.

A TV host, who later said she was misunderstood, brushed off the assault as “fun.”

“They are happy,” she giggled. “The people are having fun.”

The video illuminated what almost every woman in Egypt already knew: Sexual assault and harassment is endemic regardless of a recent law that criminalized it. Ninety-nine percent of Egyptian women say they have experienced sexual harassment and 97 percent say men have lewdly touched them without permission. At least 250 cases of “mass sexual rape and mass sexual assault” occurred between late 2012 and January of 2014, a cadre of 29 women’s rights groups said following the recent Tahir Square attack.

“This is something that scares me, as a girl,” one woman told the BBC in 2012 when discussing the surge in mob-style sexual attacks. “When I want to go out, walking the street and someone harasses or annoys me, it makes me afraid. … This stops me from going out. I try to be excessively cautious in the way I dress so I avoid wearing things that attract people.”

That sense of fear, that sense of helplessness, has given rise to an unusual hashtag campaign called “we will sexually harass men.” In tens of thousands of tweets, women condemn not just sexual harassment but a culture of tolerance that abets it. They want men to feel as victimized as they do.

“Make [men] feel disgusted with themselves until they don’t know how to walk on the street,” one woman wrote, according to Al Jazeera. “And wear scarves to avoid tension.” Another added: “And we will tell them things that will scare them while they are walking on the street.” “He was wearing tight pants anyway,” another woman said. “We will sexually harass men.”

A similar campaign occurred in early April of this year in Brazil when a survey — which was later retracted — sparked a massive online movement called “nobody deserves to be raped.”  The corrected survey said 26 percent of Brazilians believed a woman “deserved to be raped” if she dressed too provocatively, which played on societal tension over gender equality, domestic violence and rape. In Rio de Janeiro, where a string of horrific rapes last year captured international attention, at least 16 women were sexually assaulted every day in 2012.

There is, however, a certain tragedy in Brazil and Egypt’s social media campaigns. Though visceral, their chances of success aren’t high. Just as #bringbackourgirls didn’t bring back our girls, social media activism doesn’t have a high rate of efficacy when confronted with entrenched social phenomena. Hashtags are cathartic. They make a point. But it’s unclear what, if anything, they accomplish.

In 2012, some Egyptian women unveiled a site called HarassMap, started by American-born Rebecca Chiao, which allows women to report instances of abuse by texting or tweeting using the hashtag #harassmap. But that tool hasn’t slowed sexual harassment.

It drives home a harsh truth that from Pakistani honor killings, to gang-rapes in India, to ISIS’s desire to entrap women in the home “unless necessary,” the subjugation of women is unlikely to change any time soon — regardless of social media.

As the United Nations points out, no nation is without blame. “No society treats its women as well as its men,” the United Nations has said. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon added in 2008: “At least one out of every three women is likely to be beaten, coerced into sex or otherwise abused in her lifetime. Through the practice of prenatal sex selection, countless others are denied the right even to exist.”

If they are allowed to exist, huge percentages of girls are forced into child marriage. According to the International Center for Research on Women, more than 14 million girls are married each year before they’re 18. In Iraq, there’s a pending bill to allow girls as young as nine to marry. In Niger, 75 percent of girls — 75 percent — are married off before they’re 18.

The repercussions are severe. These girls are more likely to be exposed to HIV “because they often marry an older man with more sexual experience,” the group says. And the leading cause of death for girls between the ages of 15 and 19 is pregnancy, likely because they’re burdened with it before their bodies are ready.

But there are murmurs of change. “The dire statistics we hear today about violence against women have a silver lining,” wrote the Council on Foreign Relation’s Isobel Coleman in a recent essay. “Violence is being counted — and quantified — which is a huge leap forward from centuries of silence and acceptance of the oppression of women.”

Indeed, social media hasn’t returned the Nigerian girls, nor has it stopped sexual harassment in Egypt, but it has provided a voice that wouldn’t otherwise be available. “LOL Egypt’s top trending hashtag is ‘we will sexually harass men,’ ” one Egyptian woman wrote. “Girls taking their revenge on Twitter.”