Sexual harassment goes underground in Cairo as artists bring the drama onto the metro
Ahram Online rode the underground with Noon Creative Enterprise as they put on one of their dozens of performances over the past two weeks in Cairo's metro cars, opening conversations with commuters on sexual harassment
Recently, media coverage of sexual harassment – or perhaps more accurately gang rapes – in the protest centre, Tahrir Square, has opened a much-needed public debate on sexual harassment as a whole.
Women's protest marches have been held, activists have taken active steps to stop the epidemic.
This week some artists have started addressing the issue of sexual harassment through an interactive play in Cairo's ever-so-crowded metro.
"Why are you upset?" asks the male actor, Hany Taher as he hangs off one of the slightly-too-high railings on Cairo's metro as the train went through the Demerdash station near Abbasiya on the Helwan line.
"You want to know why I'm so upset?" answers actress Safaa Yehia angrily. "On my way here I was on the bus, and a man kept coming near me and pressing up against me. I kept walking away, but he wouldn't get the hint. No one on the bus did anything, so I got off at the next station."
"You didn't do anything about it?" asks another actress, Maha Moneib. "I would have hit him with my shoe and caused a scene on the bus," she said cheekily.
This skit was part of Hara TV's performance on sexual harassment. The actors, all part of Noon Creative Enterprise, put on this skit, as they ride the metro through different stations and invite the audience to participate in the conversation on the issue.
Since the issue is quite hot at the moment, many people replied saying what they thought the girl should do. One woman on the metro suggested she should have caused a scene, another man congratulated her on ignoring him and getting off the bus, while another younger man suggested she should have asked another man on the bus to help talk to him.
Although on this occasion, the actors did not tell the people on the metro that this was part of a play, the founder and artistic director of Noon Creative Enterprise, Nada Sabet, says that sometimes they do announce that it is a performance.
"It is an ongoing debate whenever we host Hara TV on the metro," she tells Ahram Online.
"The first time we did the skit on the metro with Mahatat earlier this year we would always announce it. Since then, however, sometimes we do and sometimes we don't."
The theatre director believes it is more beneficial to tell people it is a performance at the end, however, some of the actors worry that people could get upset.
Nonetheless, during this reporter's two-hour tag-along with the actors, most metro riders in close proximity to the performers interacted and participated with their thoughts, opinions and stories. Perhaps it comes from the Egyptian in everyone to insert themselves in conversations they are not a part of, which usually causes distress. However, in this case it was welcome.
In addition to this performance, the group is commissioned by UN Women to do a total of 14 performances, two hours each. During these two hours they repeat the performance on different carts 4-6 times.
Hara TV was the first project by Noon after its long establishment process. They started with hosting these interactive performances in youth centres, universities and schools around the country during the end of 2011 commissioned by United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) to encourage youth participation. They toured in Cairo, Giza, Alexandria, Suez, Fayoum, Mansoura and Minya. The actors put on one or more performances in each city they visited.
The performances included the sexual harassment skit they do on the metro, in addition to a skit about a young man who wishes to immigrate, but has no skills or plan, and a young woman who wants to be a journalist but has issues with her father stifling her freedom to travel around. These characters all meet next to the bus stop where garbage is being burned and they start discussing how they can solve this issue, with their own personal issues coming out in the process.
"They do the role-play then they involve the audience," Sabet explained. "The audience then asks the characters questions, not the fellow actors, about their issues." They have the conversation with the audience, moderated by Sabet, on the issues presented.
"It was really interesting that depending on where we were performing some stories were more predominant than others," Sabet commented clarifying that with more male-dominated audiences they tend to shift the conversation to immigration, while with more female audiences the conversation shifts to dealing with parents restricting freedoms.
"There is no social dialogue in our society," Sabet said. "People want to speak. When I was moderating it was very challenging to stop the conversation and open a new one, there is really this thirst for spaces for people to discuss things."
Besides Hara TV, Noon Creative Enterprise has several other projects. The enterprise aims to work with professionals in performance arts and civil society to support, promote and showcase their work, in addition to introducing performing and other creative tools to civil society for educational purposes along with capacity and skills development for children and youth. Noon is a collaboration between Sabet, with a background in performing arts along with Sally Sami with a background in human rights advocacy and civil society.
One of their previous projects were two plays that resulted from workshops in Cairo, then Alexandria bringing together people with different abilities to discuss integration in society. Man Antom? (Who are You?) was the play hosted in Alexandria in December and Samaa Hoss (Listen, Shhh) was the play in Cairo in April. Both plays were discussing the rights of disabled people in Egypt, the legal and social difficulties they face with a focus on people with hearing disabilities.
Noon also manages an online platform called meetphool.net that connects and showcases the people and works of performing artists. They also initiated a self-organising network of performing artists from Cairo, Alexandria and Minya to meet regularly and brainstorm ways to cooperate to develop their personal projects in addition to supporting each other in the issues they face in their work.
Their next project is an online toolkit on how to showcase performing arts online without compromising the quality of the live performance.