A statement by an Interior Ministry official promising harsh police intervention during Eid against sexual harassment wasn’t widely welcomed by anti-sexual harassment campaigns that have been consistently battling against the endemic practice.
Colonel Manal Atef, head of the violence against women department in the Interior Ministry said in an interview with Youm7 private newspaper on Tuesday that anyone who calls a woman “Mozzah” (hey sexy) in Arabic would be sentenced to one year in prison.
Atef is referring to an amendment by former President Adly Mansour to the Penal Code on June 2014 criminalizing sexual harassment, and imposing prison sentences ranging from six months to five years for the practice.
Atef explained that the department was established in 2013 in response to the increasing levels of sexual violence against women, when the decision to include female police officers was also made. She added that female officers are being trained on intervention measures to combat sexual harassment with the minimal use of arms, as they are supported by security forces from other departments.
Sexual harassment has historically spiked during the Eid holidays in Egypt. While the practice is consistently endemic across the country, mob harassment and attacks during Eid have been on the rise in recent years, with women reportedly experiencing more serious sexual assaults.
Various reports of the arresting of harassers did little to control the widespread phenomenon, which, according to a study by UN Women has been experienced by 99.3 percent of women in Egypt.
“Harassing the Harassers” is a citizen-led initiative that works on publicly shaming harassers by writing the word “harasser” on their t-shirts. Campaign founder Shady Abou Zied explained to Mada Masr that police intervention over the last three years, since the initiative started, has been minimal.
“Every year police promise serious interventions, and we see the presence of female police officers across Cairo and they do nothing. They arrest us instead,” Zied explained. He told Mada Masr about police officers threatening campaign staff last year.
“It’s not about impunity, it’s about the police not wanting to arrest harassers. I don’t know why people are impressed by such remarks [promises of protection] by the police,” he added.
Fearing a police crackdown, Zied said his campaign is halting their activities this Eid.
The spokesperson for the “I Saw Harassment” campaign, Fathy Farid, told Mada Masr that it is difficult to measure whether alleged police intervention and law enforcement is really effective. “We have no information or figures on the numbers of official complaints filed by harassers in order to compare them to previous years,” he explained.
While Farid believes that even the symbolic presence of more police forces in the streets can deter harassers and prevents some crimes, he says the issue needs to be more institutionalized. For him, police forces are not trained properly in terms of intervention and the numbers of female officers are very few.
Atef says there are only around 300 female police officers nationwide. She explained that the department is addressing this problem by coordinating with human rights units in police stations.
In an interview with “Set al-Hosn” talk show on the privately owned ONTV channel, Atef said it is difficult to identify certain areas in Cairo that witness spikes in sexual harassment during Eid. However, a statement by “I saw harassment” declared Downtown Cairo as an area “stained” by harassment. The initiative argued authorities should be present in public parks, cinemas, and areas of public gatherings, especially in Downtown Cairo.
A study by anti-sexual harassment initiative Harassmap, conducted on December 2014, revealed that 95 percent of Cairo women have experienced sexual harassment, most often in broad daylight while walking down the street or taking public transport.
Fathy also believes that reforming the culture of the Interior Ministry is critical to encouraging women to report on sexual harassment, as he says, “entering a police station in and of itself is a scary idea” for them.