By Nora P. Knobloch, contributor, EgyptianStreets.com
Is there any reason to celebrate the third anniversary of the Egyptian revolution? It is important to ask: what, in human rights, society, or politics, progressed and what has regressed?
It is crucial to observe the complexities in the political struggles that Egypt has witnessed over the past three years. It is also crucial to not become silent that the rights of Egyptian women are continuously ignored.
Two months ago, Egypt was labeled the “worst Arab country for women” in a (study of the Thomson Reuters Foundation. According to the report, public places increasingly became a commonplace of sexual violence and abuse, especially during the last three years. Another report by the UN declared that more than 99 percent of the female Egyptian population has experienced sexual harassment.
Thus it is important to ask, in relation to the female populace: Where did the progression and where did the regression happen? Were there hardly any of both?
To touch on that topic, I spoke with one of the very few female photojournalists of the Egyptian revolution in Cairo, Eman Helal.
Can you think of any explanation as to why Egypt was labeled “the worst Arab country for women,” despite women’s role in Egypt’s revolution?
The revolutions in the countries of the Arab spring have been a huge chance itself. Especially in the first few days, when everybody rushed to the streets without any plan. Everybody, without exception, participated: men, women and children.
But as it became more critical, men returned to extend their control of the new space and to remind the woman to take part only after the approval of men. An example is the iconic image of army soldiers abusing a woman during demonstrations against the regime – making all women afraid to leave their homes and join the demonstrations.
In November 2012 at Tahrir Square, when a group of women got violently harassed by protestors, the Muslim Brotherhood regime was accused of terrorizing women to scare them from participating in demonstrations that called for their rights.
How do you feel about Egypt being ranked as the worst in the treatment women? Do you see any justification?
Unfortunately, ever since the beginning of the revolution, women have seen more attacks on their rights and more sexual harassment. There is a famous phrase in Egypt now: the revolution broke the barrier of fear and frustration so that there is no objection for people to do anything.
The given direction of enthusiastic leaders was followed by obedients who quickly switched sides in an erratic pushing-and-pulling atmosphere, where everybody just did what they pleased. Eventually that pleasure-seeking aggression is then directed towards women in order to eliminate them. All of this often happened in the presence of the police, which failed and did not protect the women, but were contrarily also involved in the repression of women.
You are a talented photograph and participated during the crucial points of the revolution. Are you unique in that position, as a female photographer on the streets?
I started photography in 2009. I was working in the field with something like five women. Today, there are almost 15 female photojournalist in Egypt. But the level of support they find from their male superiors or colleagues is very weak.
My own experience after working with four Egyptian newspapers showed this. I always found that male colleagues were preferred. I was underprivileged, just because I am a woman.
Managers trust men rather than women, and give them the important logistical support, which always makes me angry.
On the streets and during your profession do you experience any discrimination because you are a woman?
Yes. I’ve faced discrimination as most men do not prefer women in such a career – which they see as male as male monopoly.
Firstly, most of them make fun of women no matter what their colleagues have achieved. Your gender is recognized more than your achievements.
Secondly, from the public in the street, sometimes the youth, watching a female photographer carrying a camera, make fun of you and verbally harass her.
How did you or your friends experience the issue of sexual harassment on the streets? Can you tell me about a certain situation?
During my work on the streets, especially in times of clashes, one has to be sensitive to wear wide clothes and speak sharply like men.
I once faced harassment during clashes. It was dark and he ran away before I saw his face.
What do you think could be the main causes of Egyptian men harassing women? Is there any law restricting sexual harassment?
There is no law concerning sexual harassment, but there indeed is for rape. Unfortunately, if you face harassment and decide go to the police station, firstly they will not help…and one section officer will make fun of you, trying to convince you to not accuse anyone, or sometimes even refuses to writing anything.
Men harass women in Egypt because no rule prevents them from it. For example, if a thief is not punished for stealing, then that will encourage everyone to steal because there is nothing to prevent them from it or punish them for it. It’s the same concept.
Harassment is said to be caused by difficulties like unemployment and the inability of young people to marry. I disagree though, because a lot of men that do harass women are married!
What are your thoughts on reports that the Military conducted virginity tests during the 2011 revolution? Do you feel the veil prevents sexual harassment?
Government officials deny the reports, saying they are fabricated for political reasons. They say Egypt is a safe country and that there is no sexual harassment.
The veil does not prevent sexual harassment. Even the women who cover their faces are harassed, but certainly the unveiled women often face more harassment. Men talk about unveiled women inappropriately…as if they are punks.
If a woman is harassed or raped, where does she go to claim justice or get help?
Legally, you must go to the police station to report the incident. Psychologically, there are now centers trying to register cases, writing reports and providing psychological support.
Some groups that fight sexual harassment include “Tahrir Body Guards,” which provides hotlines in times of major demonstrations for women to report cases of harassment. The group also go to places of demonstrations to defend women and to provide first aid for any injured women.
At significant days of the revolution, Tahrir Square was often separated in sections: one section for women, and one that was mixed. There are also separate train carriages for women. All of this is aimed at protecting women from any harm or harassment. Is the separation of women from men a solution, or does it simply cause the problem to grow?
Two carriages for ladies exist in the Metro. The reason behind it is that the Metro is one of the main public transportation services in Egypt, and it’s too crowded. Some women do not find comfort in that case. Additionally, some women breastfeed their children in public. However, this does not mean we don’t have a right to ride on any carriage.
After the revolution, the real problem was the absence of security. Women know that there are men who do not respect the law in the absence of the police.
Where do you think is the root of the problem of sexual harassment?
Raising children in a wrong way and the absence of a law for protection.
How can Egypt become a safer place for women?
Develop a strict law and implement it to scare away harassers. Educate children in schools about the value of respect for others and the role of men and women in building the community together.
It also starts at home. Men must respect their wives and not discriminate when raising boys or girls. The problem starts at home, when boys are given freedom to go out with their friends and come back home late, yet girls are prevented from such freedom.