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By Deena Gamil
CAIRO, Nov 12 (Aswat Masriya) - A spike in sexual harassment in Egypt reflects a general rise in violence in Egyptian society in recent years, a prominent researcher said, calling for both legal reform and action on the street to tackle the scourge.
“People are now used to seeing violence and blood,” Dalia Abdel Hameed said in a recent interview. “When a society is plagued by violence, it is usually directed towards the more disadvantaged groups.”
A Thomson Reuters Foundation expert survey (http://poll2013.trust.org) found Egypt is the worst country in the Arab world to be a woman, followed by Iraq and Saudi Arabia.
The gender experts cited high rates of female genital mutilation, a surge in trafficking, discrimnatory laws and a roll-back of freedoms since the Arab Spring, among other factors.
But at the top of the list was Egypt's endemic sexual harassment.
A study by UN Women in April found that 99.3 percent of Egyptian women and girls reported having been subjected to verbal or physical harassment.
Abdel Hameed, a researcher for the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, said the spread of harassment -- or "sexual violence", as she calls it in the Egyptian context -- began in 2005, when there was an upsurge in political activity that brought many more women into the public sphere.
In that year, groups of teenage boys harassed girls in front of a cinema in central Cairo during celebrations marking a Muslim feast -- the first example of a mob sexual assault, she said.
Later in the year, thugs assaulted female protesters during a demonstration against then President Hosni Mubarak -- an attack the authorities were accused of organising.
The Arab Spring that swept North Africa and parts of the Middle East came to Egypt in 2011, when Mubarak was toppled. Subsequent elections brought the Muslim Brotherhood to power under Mohamed Mursi, the country’s first Islamist president.
Sexual violence was used to punish women for taking part in the mass demonstrations of the Egyptian revolution, in which women played a prominent role, Abdel Hameed said.
The huge protests against Mubarak’s rule in early 2011 were centred on Cairo’s Tahrir Square, and after the armed forces cleared the square on March 9, 17 women were detained and subjected to invasive and degrading virginity tests.
General Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, head of Egypt’s military intelligence at the time, later admitted the army had conducted the tests, and said this was done to "protect" itself against possible allegations of rape. Al-Sisi promised such tests would not be carried out again.
DETAINEE ACTION PRAISED
One of the detainees, Samira Ibrahim, filed a lawsuit against the army, which resulted in a court banning the practice. Activists praised Ibrahim for her courage in bringing the lawsuit as she defied Egyptian social norms that stigmatise women for admitting they have suffered any form of sexual assault.
The Mursi government’s rule became increasingly divisive, provoking widespread protests that ended with the armed forces forcing him from power in July this year.
During the protests, sexual violence worsened and there were cases of group rape in Tahrir Square, Abdel Hameed said.
On July 3, Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued a statement asking Egyptian officials and political leaders to “condemn and take immediate steps to address the horrific levels of sexual violence against women in Tahrir Square”.
HRW, quoting Egyptian anti-sexual harassment groups, said there had been at least 91 cases of sexual assault and in some cases rape in Tahrir Square over four days of protests starting on June 30.
Egypt’s legal system is a major obstacle in the fight against sexual violence and needs major reform, Abdel Hameed said.
“The penal law uses moral terms, rather than legal ones, making it hard to identify and criminalise all forms of sexual violence,” she said.
“The state should play a role by carrying out legal reform to change the articles related to sexual violence; restructuring the Ministry of the Interior; introducing the concept of gender; reforming the forensic medical authority; reforming the education system to promote the concept of equality,” she said.
BROAD CAMPAIGN NEEDED
The state should also launch a national campaign against sexual assault, like the campaign it ran years ago against female circumcision, another violent act against females in Egypt, she said.
About 91 percernt of Egyptian women and girls -- 27.2 million in all -- are subjected to female genital mutilation, according to UNICEF.
The state’s involvement is important, but not sufficient, she added.
“If the grassroots initiatives which appeared in the past couple of years do not move ahead, nothing will change radically,” Abdel Hameed said.
“Real change does not come from above, and in order for society to criminalise sexual assaults, there must be a real effort from the progressive groups and the feminist movement.
“Looking at the work and enthusiasm of the groups (that are) active against sexual assaults, I feel there is light at the end of the tunnel."
One discovery that runs counter to popular perception is that sexual violence is not connected to women’s appearance, she added.
A study, “Clouds in Egypt’s Sky”, by the Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights, concluded that no connection exists between clothing and harassment as most women experiencing sexual harassment are veiled.
Visit poll2013.trust.org for complete poll coverage
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