article

06.01.11

Egypt's Digital Sex-Assault Map

The military may have performed "virginity tests" on protestors, but women have been harassed for years. Eliza Griswold talks to the founders of a social networking site designed for victims.

The latest admission by a senior general in the Egyptian military that at least 17 women were forced to undergo gynecological exams in order to test their virginity is unleashing a new wave of protest by international women’s groups. In Egypt, HarassMap, a social networking site launched in November 2010 by a group of concerned and savvy women, is leading the charge. HarassMap allows women to report sexual harassment—from catcalls to stalking—via SMS and Twitter.

The "virginity tests" came to light after Amnesty International published an investigation on violence against women protestors following a day of protest in Tahrir Square on March 9 of this year. Yesterday Amnesty International called the virginity tests torture.

The senior general told Amnesty International, "The girls who were detained were not like your daughter or mine … These were girls who had camped out in tents with male protesters in Tahrir Square, and we found in the tents Molotov cocktails and (drugs)." The tests, he claimed, were a means to ensure the women couldn’t claim they were virgins before the military detained them.

"We didn't want them to say we had sexually assaulted or raped them, so we wanted to prove that they weren't virgins in the first place," the general said. "None of them were (virgins)."

Engy Ghozlan, 26, one of HarassMap’s founders says, yes, this incident, although it seems so far to be an isolated one, does indeed qualify as torture. "The girls were exposed to a lot of psychological pressure and suffering," she says. This violence against women is part of the larger pattern of violence and extreme intimidation that HarassMap is hoping to expose and to end.

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Currently, there is no law against sexual harassment in Egypt. That means that many crimes, including touching, indecent exposure, and rape, are frequently seen as socially acceptable. HarassMap aims to change that: to make it unacceptable for men to assault and harass women by exposing the scope of the problem and encouraging women to speak out against perpetrators.

Founded by a team of volunteers—including Rebecca Chiao, an American who has lived and worked in Cairo since 2004—and Engy Ghozlan, a graduate of Cairo University, HarassMap sorts, reports, and creates a visual map that reflects its reports. In this and other ways, it follows the techie example set by Hollaback, an international movement to stop sexual harassment worldwide. But what sets HarassMap apart is that it uses a Kenyan platform, Ushahidi.com, founded to stop reports of election violence in 2008. One of HarassMap’s functions, beyond building awareness of the problem, is to show women where it might be dangerous for them to walk alone. HarassMap also responds to reports with other guidance about safety.

The statistics behind the issue are staggering: 83% of Egyptian women and 98% of foreign women living in Cairo have been sexually harassed, according to a 2008 survey by the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights.

Horrifyingly, on Friday, Feb. 11, 2011, 60 Minutes correspondent Lara Logan became one among them. “What Lara Logan experienced has happened to a lot of women, but they don’t get the exposure,” Ghozlan told me recently.

At first it seemed that the attack on Logan and other foreign women by pro-Mubarak political thugs during the 18 days of protest in Egypt’s Tahrir Square were isolated incidents. On the surface it looked like Egyptians, regardless of gender, were looking out for one another as they worked together to free their country from decades of dictatorship and political violence. But these latest admissions by the Egyptian military, as well as Amnesty’s reporting, reveal a much darker strain under the seemingly peaceful surface of protest.

Now as the revolution’s dust begins to settle, HarassMap, along with other women’s organizations, is facing new challenges: first, to address these shocking allegations; second, to make sure that women have a seat at the table in the formation of a new Egyptian government and a national constitution. Ghozlan wants to caution that women must keep pressing for social change as well as political change.

83% of Egyptian women and 98% of foreign women living in Cairo have been sexually harassed.

“When all women’s groups set aside the issues they’ve been working on and just look at politics,” Ghozlan warns, “we’re going to lose a lot of ground.” Reports to HarassMap have dropped off in the face of such momentous political change. Keeping them going is essential, she notes.

One hugely positive outcome of political transformation: it might be possible to criminalize sexual harassment—finally. There have been many studies done on why harassment is so bad in Cairo in particular, and there really is no definitive answer: an increasingly conservative version of religion and simply the sheer number of foreign visitors in Egypt both play a role.

Above all, however, the tacit acceptance of a culture in which abuse against women is tolerated in private and public has to change from the ground up. That’s where HarassMap comes in. Social media is only part of the solution. “What we’re seeing now is it just can’t be social media,” Ghozlan said. “We can’t just keep talking to ourselves. We have to go outside of Cairo. We need to go talk to people on the ground.”

Eliza Griswold, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, is the author of the New York Times bestseller The Tenth Parallel.