Videos and pictures showing female police officers violently reprimanding alleged harassers last weekend were both lauded and criticized, as the Interior Ministry attempted to fulfil its promise of intervening against sexual harassment during the Eid holiday.
Official statements claim the ministry’s department for violence against women arrested 84 alleged harassers over the break.
But underneath the embodiment of this state promise in the image of a female cop robustly roaming the harassment-laden streets of Cairo before a mesmerized public, there are many underlying issues.
Excessive use of violence
A video circulating on social media shows a female police officer dragging an alleged harasser into a movie theater and giving him a number of electric shocks while handcuffed.
Intessar al-Said, head of the Cairo Center for Development and Human Rights, one of the organizations that volunteered to combat harassment during Eid, criticizes the excessive use of violence, saying that harassers should be dealt with within a legal framework.
“The harasser is a criminal. In our culture, ganging up on and beating thieves is accepted,” she says, but “criminals should be punished under the law.”
Dalia Abdel Hameed, head of the gender and women’s rights program at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, agrees, saying that police culture in general includes a sense of entitlement to use violence against those who have been arrested. They become immediately stripped of their rights, especially at a time when police impunity is on the rise.
Hameed says the use of violence is debatable when arresting the perpetrators of mass harassment, dealing with armed harassers, or protecting someone at risk. However, she adds that it is a different story once the harasser has been arrested.
“Maybe she needed to use violence to pull him off girls, but using an electric rod against him after he’s been arrested and surrendered, that is a real violation,” she says.
By the hands of a woman
A photo widely circulated on Facebook shows an alleged harasser in a tight headlock by a female officer.
The violence itself aside, seeing women in such public positions of power prompted varying responses. Some media posts pontificated on the strength and daring of the female officers, others dismissed them as disrupting social norms.
“This is more about gender politics,” Abdel Hameed explains. “People are upset because women can’t hit men, not because it’s the police.”
In an exceptional performance for Eid
Images of female police officers roaming the streets of Cairo for Eid appear exceptional amid calls by activists for the combating of harassment year-round, not just on special occasions.
The I Saw Harassment campaign urged the government to reform security plans to combat sexual harassment. In its report on the Eid break, the campaign said it should be a priority for officers every day, and highlighted the importance of recruiting female officers across all sectors of the ministry.
But Abdel Hameed says the increased presence of women in police forces around the world has largely contributed to a decrease in police violence.
Without much training on gender-based violence
The I Saw Harassment campaign says female police officers need to be better trained in dealing with cases specifically related to violence against women and spreading a culture of equality.
Abdel Hameed claims that, while they lack training, they are on the right path. She says the ministry’s unit to combat violence against women is becoming more gender sensitive, but that it is a process and will take time. She adds that women’s groups and NGOs must offer support in terms of capacity building.
There has been some criticism of hiring female police officers to only deal with issues affecting women, Abdel Hameed says, when their responsibilities should encompass more varied police work.
Female police officers “are neither angels nor demons,” Abdel Hameed comments. She lauds the government’s attempts to take the issue seriously, adding that years of volunteer work in the field of fighting sexual harassment has pushed the state to finally deal with harassment as a crime, but adds that there is still a long way to go.
In a persistently patriarchal state
Aly El Raggal, a researcher who specializes in issues related to the body and security, agrees with Abdel Hameed that female police officers are a positive step.
“For the state to feel that women have to do this, even if in a ‘masculine way’, means that they understand there is a crisis. They also understand that it’s a crisis more present for women than men, hence the need to engage women in the fight.” He adds that with time, these female officers will want to prove themselves more, which will also be part of the success of this experience.
The problem lies in doing so through the mimicking of police behavior that is largely a male-dominated field, which is not a phenomenon limited to Egypt. “If the process is not developed properly, we risk reproducing the very patriarchy we are trying to fight,” Raggal says, adding that the state’s logic in fighting harassment is ultimately laced with a sense of patriarchy, whereby the government feels responsible to protect the bodies of women, as opposed to guaranteeing their freedom.
Raggal also fears that resorting to policing genders separately will essentially limit public space further, which may worsen the sexual tension already rampant and palpable on Egypt’s streets.