By Erika Lundahl, special to Humanosphere
Amid widespread political dissent in the wake of the military coup and the election of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi as president in Egypt, efforts to spread awareness of sexual violence are making headway. Grassroots campaigns and crowd-sourced mapping efforts have traction despite a history of either ignoring the violence or using it to escalate conflict.
With 99.3 percent of women in Egypt subject to sexual harassment, according to a 2013 study from UN Women, and social taboos keeping women and men from talking about harassment, it would seem that a rough road lies ahead to bring change.
This striking statistic was confirmed by a crowd-sourced mapping and research initiative, HarassMap. In a report published in August, HarassMap showed that 95.3 percent of women in Cairo have been sexually harassed, drawing on anonymous crowd-sourced data on sexual harassment, as well as other conventional methods.
Mapping Sexual Violence: The HarassMap Project
The study is the product of a massive outreach endeavor, and a source of information on patterns of sexual violence in Egypt. The HarassMap initiative began in late 2010 with the goal of starting a conversation about harassment. It does so by allowing women the opportunity to geographically locate, and freely report and share their experiences of sexual harassment. At the center of the project was “The Map” — a tool to aggregate anonymously reported incidents via SMS, Twitter, email, Facebook and the HarassMap website.
“We thought of the map as a tool and a platform where people would talk about this issue safely and anonymously,” Noora Flinkman, HarassMap marketing and communications unit head, said in an interview over Skype. It’s easier to fight an enemy you can see and talk about, and when they launched, sexual harassment was a mum subject no one was addressing.
“Not even established women’s rights NGO’s for example, who were working on other issues that were effecting women’s lives,” explained Flinkman.
When incidents of catcalling, public touching or violent sexual assault are reported, they are sorted geographical and by color (for the nature of the event) on the map. Commentary on the incident, which can be as short as a sentence, or as long as many pages of explanation and response, is viewable when you click over it.
As PBS reported in March 2013, during a large protest in Tahrir Square on Jan. 25, 2013, at least 19 gang attacks were “nearly simultaneously” reported in the square. According to the HarassMap study, the reports that came in during the protest were nearly all sexual assaults or rapes. And the reports were lengthy and descriptive; the average report was between a half page and four pages long.
Unlike formal research methods that are carefully proctored, the accessible and anonymous forum created by HarassMap allows women to speak frankly and they are showing themselves to be uninhibited about their feelings. Women were also more likely to report more violent crimes, such as rape or sexual assault, which accounted for .6 percent of all mapped incidents.
“They don’t have to feel ashamed to use words that they wouldn’t feel OK to say out loud in the company of people,” Flinkman said.
The “larger purpose of the narrative” states the HarassMap research, “is to expose the harassment event itself and to document the lack of security, state violence and the challenges encountered by women during their participation in the political space.”
Dispelling Myths about Sexual Harassment with Maps
Other countries have launched similar efforts to map sexual harassment (Syria, Palestine, India, to name just a few), and HarassMap has assisted activists all over the world set up their own versions of HarassMap. But, like most massive movements for social change, mapping is one line in a multifront attack on sexual harassment and violence.
HarassMap’s report is unique in that it draws on anonymous crowd-sourced data on sexual harassment, as well as more conventional methods of in-depth personal and group interviews, and qualitative and quantitative surveys. The combination of anonymous reporting and traditional research methods provides new insights, both on the nature of sexual harassment, as well as an opportunity to cross-examine research methods and identify the unique benefits of anonymous research.
“There’s a gap between what we say [about sexual harassment], and what actually happens,” Flinkman said.
For example, a widespread myth about sexual harassment in Egypt is that only uneducated, unmarried men harass. The evidence proves otherwise, showing that respondents with university-level education were the most likely to harass. Marital status was also debunked as an indicator.
When men were asked about the reasons that harassment takes place, 50 percent of men responded that girls wearing “tight fitting clothing” was the cause. And 37.1 percent responded by saying that women want to be harassed. Alternatively, 95.3 percent of all women surveyed had experienced sexual harassment, and only .4 percent responded to the survey, “I like it.”
This is the kind of data that HarassMap sends out into the streets along with their enormous volunteer core. Once a month, more than 1,500 trained volunteers hit the streets to talk to people in their neighborhoods and encourage them to speak out when they see harassment. The project ultimately serves to dispel myths about sexual harassment and put in place new ways of thinking.
While hard data on the successes of this widespread endeavor is difficult to pin down (there’s little to compare it to), there are several hopeful signs, that the HarassMap initiative is having a positive impact on the community, and also on the global conversation surrounding sexual harassment.
One good sign, Flinkman said, is that people are beginning to recognize that sexual harassment goes far beyond physical harm, and also causes emotional and psychological damage. Women, Flinkman said, are also beginning to be more assertive in public. When asked how they respond to sexual harassment, the second-most-common answer after “Doing nothing,” was to “Answer him back and put him to shame” – the choice that respondents answered 33.9 percent of the time.
There are also dozens more initiatives and programs today than existed in 2010 that specifically address sexual harassment. With HarassMap’s help, Cairo University adopted its first-ever policy on sexual harassment, which is the only policy of its kind written in Arabic, according the Flinkman.
Some of this increase of awareness, Flinkman said, can certainly be attributed to the Egyptian Revolution. The footage of sexual assaults that occurred during protests and celebrations helped launch the issue “into the limelight.” But more than that, said Flinkman, the energy of the revolution has spurred people to actively pursue positive social change.
“More and more people are starting to see that this is harassment, that it’s a crime.”
Erika Lundahl is a freelance writer in Seattle. Erika’s writing has been published by YES! Magazine, Truthout, The Christian Science Monitor, and Bill Moyers Website. She can be found on twitter @ErikaLundahl