Anne Justus, chair of the Department of Sociology, Anthropology, Psychology and Egyptology
One important outcome of the 2011 revolution is the increased public presence of women, yet sexual harassment and violence continue to take their toll on Egypt’s women. Professors at the American University in Cairo (AUC), Anne Justus, chair of the Department of Sociology, Anthropology, Psychology and Egyptology and a practicing clinical psychologist and Helen Rizzo, associate professor of sociology, speak against sexual harassment in Egypt. Abuse affects women of all classes and creeds, and it can be physical, sexual and/or psychological. Sexual harassment is one form of abuse, explained Justus, “I would estimate that 85 to 90 percent of the women I see in my private practice have experienced sexual harassment, rape or physical abuse, often from members of their own families.”
Sexual harassment has been defined by the United Nations as “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature.” The term encompasses a wide range of acts, from rape to making inappropriate sexual comments or jokes, which can occur in the workplace, on the street or at home.
The desire to abuse another person, verbally, sexually or physically, comes from feeling powerless or insecure, explained Justus, thus abuse becomes an effort to regain a sense of control. With assault in public places, a mob mentality may prevail, making it easier for potential attackers to dehumanize their victims. “It’s not a personal thing; it’s about gender,” Justus noted. “Post-revolution, as Egyptian men continue to feel helpless or estranged from political power, they may respond to that by seeking power over women. Consequently, if we want the assault and abuse to end, then the abusers must be able to find other sources of self-esteem. There must be a shift in the cultural understanding of abusive behavior so that it is no longer tolerated or silently condoned.”
Abusive experiences also result in powerful negative psychological effects for the abused. “It’s like the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder,” Justus said. She said women may have difficulty sleeping and experience stress headaches and are generally unhappy, scared and ashamed.
Justus, who trained as a psychologist in the United States, explained that while the reasons for hiding abuse and its psychological consequences are constant across cultures, activists in Egypt are now better able to promote messages about abuse. “There are generally two messages that U.S. activists always give,” she said. “First, this is not your fault, and second, you need to get out if you’re being abused. It will be interesting to see which messages will be used in the long-term fight against sexual harassment and domestic abuse here in Cairo.”
Getting women to accept the first message is a difficult task. “Many women assume responsibility for their abuse; they blame themselves for what’s happening and beat themselves up mentally for it,” Justus said. “This is often reinforced by the culture around them.”
For Justus, the best way to fight abuse is to speak up. How much of an impact this is having remains to be seen, but public knowledge about sexual harassment is increasing.
Rizzo, is a consultant for HarassMap, an organization that catalogues occasions of sexual harassment and plots them on an online map of Egypt. The map’s data probably under represent the actual amount of sexual harassment taking place because it only includes submitted incidents.
Rizzo noted, “While many rights groups want to hold men accountable for their actions, there’s little knowledge of how to go about it.” The Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights (ECWR) is one organization trying to do just that. They seek to reform the laws about sexual assault. The current laws distinguish roughly between the categories of insult and rape, leaving much of what constitutes sexual harassment undefined and, thus, difficult to punish.
Another organization with increasing presence is Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment (OpAntiSH), which publishes accounts of assault on its Facebook page. “There are stories still coming out about sexual assaults that happened during the revolution,” Justus said. “Even with the growing presence of these issues in the media, women are waiting for years to tell their stories. The fact that they’re speaking out, though, is very encouraging. It takes great courage to do such a thing, and it helps men and women alike realize their collective humanity.”