Egypt’s Sexual Harassment Epidemic

Sophia Jones and Erin Banco on how Western reporters are sexually harassed in Egypt.

The call to prayer echoed as we made our way through the streets of Zamalek, a warm breeze rustling the trees. It reminded of us of summer days back home. We saw an elderly man walking out of the market, smiling gently. We noticed him because he was walking directly toward us. As he passed, he grabbed his penis, yelled “f--k you!” and walked on. He was still smiling.

It’s difficult to write about sexual harassment and assault in Egypt without sounding like Angry White Girls. But as journalists, it is not merely our job to report in such an environment, it is an everyday psychological and sometimes even physical battle. We open our closets in the morning and debate what to wear to lessen the harassment—as if this would help. Even fully veiled women are harassed on Cairo’s streets. As one young Cairo-based female reporter recently remarked, “it’s a f--ked-up reality that we will be touched.”

And yet, Egypt has become a hotbed for young female journalists such as ourselves. Often the odds are against us: the traditional sexism of the journalism industry combined with an institutionalized form of sexualized violence in Egypt.

On Sunday night—after Egypt’s first democratically elected president was announced—a young British journalist, Natasha Smith, was capturing the scene of jubilation in Tahrir. Families waved at her camera, welcoming her to Egypt, and fireworks erupted in the night sky. In a mere moment, she was dragged from her male companion into a frenzied mob in the hundreds. “Men began to rip off my clothes,” she wrote on her blog. They “pulled my limbs apart and threw me around. They were scratching and clenching my breasts and forcing their fingers inside me in every possible way ... All I could see was leering faces, more and more faces sneering and jeering as I was tossed around like fresh meat among starving lions.”

Like hundreds of other countries around the world, sexual harassment and assault happens everyday in Egypt. It happens to both Egyptian women, and to foreign women. It happens at all times of the day, despite what some may think, at the hands of men—young boys, grown men, police officers, military officers, and almost everyone in between. It is not strange for little boys to run after us, or follow us home. They make all kinds of calls and noises as we pass: slurps, hissing, barking, and even machine-gun sounds. It is strange to say, but we are constantly scared of small children. Not necessarily a physical fear, but more so the fact that a child could have the ability to inflict fear.

One of the most infamous cases of outright sexual assault in Egypt occurred during a protest in December 2011, when a young woman was snatched by military officers, dragged, kicked, and undressed. She has been dubbed “the Girl in the Blue Bra,” and her story continues to be used as a symbol of the relationship between the military and Egyptian civilians. But it is also a comment on the treatment of Egyptian women, as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton underlined it in a statement following the attack: “This systematic degradation of Egyptian women dishonors the revolution, disgraces the state and its uniform, and is not worthy of a great people,” she said.

This past November, Mona El-Tahawy, an American-Egyptian by descent, endured a brutal sexual assault after being arrested and detained by riot police. "Five or six surrounded me, groped and prodded my breasts, grabbed my genital area, and I lost count of how many hands tried to get into my trousers. Yes, sexual assault. I'm so used to saying harassment but [they] assaulted me," she said over Twitter. Both of her wrists were broken. And Lara Logan of CBS News was attacked and sexually assaulted in Tahrir Square while reporting in February 2011.

What we believe many people around the world are unaware of is that these situations happen to female journalists in Egypt on a broad spectrum—those working in film, TV, print, and photography. And they happen to journalists like Natasha who are trying to make a start in their careers. The assault, though not always physically brutal, happens to one of us almost every single time we head out to report. It’s not a conflict of trenches and flack jackets, but rather a physically and emotionally exhausting war where we are outlets for sexual frustration, economic instability, anger towards the “foreign hand" and “spies,” and other excuses.

We want to love Egypt. We watched her transition, studied her politics, and tried to master her language. We have stood among thousands in Tahrir, and braved tear gas and intimidation by security forces in order to inform the rest of the world. At the end of Natasha’s detailed description of her assault, she didn’t throw in the towel and announce defeat—even some may see this as an entirely appropriate response. “Nothing, and nobody, will hold me back,” she said. “When I’m ready, I’ll finish this. The show must go on.”

We know that some people may read this article and say, “Yes, well, this is the life they chose to live as reporters” or “Didn’t they know that Egypt was like this?” We knew that coming to Cairo to report would be a challenge, yes. We heard horror stories. And we all had the same thought: it will be fine; I will be able to deal with it. It is not about us, it is about the people we are reporting on—it is their stories we need to tell. This ideal persists, but when we hear stories like Natasha’s, we’re hit with moments of doubt, frustration, and sadness. Is it worth it? But days pass, and we find ourselves in Tahrir once again.

We think our voices are important to the coverage of Egypt’s transition. We aren’t sure what the future holds for us as journalists—perhaps the harassment will only get worse. But we are certain of two things: One, we will continue to cover stories like the one in Egypt, and, two, something must change—not only for the sake of female journalists, but for all Egyptian women who, after we leave, after we are done reporting, will have to deal with it on a daily basis.