Would men stop sexually harassing women, or at least understand what it feels like to be verbally and physically abused, if they were to experience it themselves?
One TV programme in Egypt has looked at the issue of sexual harassment by doing just that.
“Awel el Khayt” - roughly translated as “The Thread” - is a seven-episode series aimed at covering longstanding socio-political and economic problems in the north African country.
In a recently aired 30-minute episode titled “Sexual Harassment in Egypt”, young actor Waleed Hammad took to the streets of downtown Cairo dressed as a woman in order to experience harassment firsthand.
In the report, Hammad - who went out both veiled and unveiled to see whether that would make a difference - said he was followed by fancy cars with men in suits who would try to lure him into the vehicle.
On another occasion, he was followed by a man who seemed to be talking on the phone. The actor realised after a while that the man was in fact cautiously addressing him, proposing a paid appointment with another man in a hotel room.
“I realised that simply walking on the street, for a woman, is such a huge effort, a psychological effort and a bodily effort. It’s like women are besieged,” Hammad said.
A ROLE ACTORS REFUSED
“As a man (Hammad) takes to the streets to go about his daily business without much thought for what he is wearing, who is looking at him, and without the fear of being physically or verbally harassed,” Ramy Aly, the editorial consultant for the programme told Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“So dressing up as a woman was a real eye opener, an exercise in empathy.” Finding an actor willing to put on women’s clothing and walk the streets of Cairo wasn’t easy, Aly said.
Producers went to a number of casting agencies, but most actors refused. It took them two months to find Hammad.
Aly said the series is meant to fill a void in current affairs programming on Egyptian television, which has long been dominated by talk shows and TV debates but lacks factual programming formats.
“We decided to go for a mixed format where we would produce documentaries investigating issues like sexual harassment, food security, health care and education, which we would use as a way of laying the ground for informed debate,” he said. “We wanted try and tackle some of the longstanding problems that Egypt faces in a different way.”
Sexual harassment is an endemic, longstanding, highly controversial and sensitive subject in Egypt. A string of high-profile incidents of mass sex attacks in recent months has drawn global attention on the phenomenon.
“However,” Aly said, “society has by and large turned a blind eye to the everyday forms of sexual harassment that millions of Egyptian women experience every day on the street, public transport and at work.”
Moreover, some men remain unsympathetic towards women who have been harassed, blaming them for dressing provocatively and calling the abuse upon them.
According to Aly, the reasons of sexual harassment are complex and include a number of stereotypes. It is fuelled by unemployment, poverty, lower chances of marriage, the Internet, pornography and women going beyond their traditional roles as housewives and mothers.
However, none of the above provides an exhaustive, comprehensive explanation of the phenomenon, he said.
“We realised that we could not find a root cause, and so instead, the film engages in a kind of myth-busting exercise. (We found that) many perpetrators are married, they are both wealthy and poor men, and that women who are veiled in various degrees from niqab (full veil) to hijab (headscarf) are harassed in equal measure.”
They even came across a case in which a brother accidentally harassed his own sister.
TALKING ABOUT A TABOO
In addition to Hammad’s experiment, the TV programme also gathered testimonies of women who were victims of harassment. And, Aly said, it wasn’t easy getting them to open up.
“It is still a challenge to find non-activist women who are willing to speak candidly about their experiences of sexual harassment because it is such a social taboo.”
One woman who took her harasser to court and got him convicted recounted being pressured to drop the charges during the first court hearing, and subsequently being threatened by his family, who said they would throw acid on her face.
“Nobody supported me, and to this day, not many people in my family know that I took him to court, and those that do know say, ‘How will you get married after what you have done?’” the woman said.
Hammad, after switching gender roles for the TV programme, felt some empathy.
“I would say to all the women out there, God be with you. I know that it is such a devastating experience, and even as a man dressed as a woman, I don’t think I can claim to really understand what it feel like to be a woman under these circumstances,” Hammad said.