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Egypt’s women turn to social media to recount childhood sexual violence
Courtesy: صفحة قوة ضد التحرش على فيسبوك

Women in Egypt have seized upon the existence of a social media hashtag in the past few days to relay accounts of sexual violence and harassment they experienced at ages as young as five years old and that often involved relatives or close family members.

The testimonies communicated through the hashtag #أول_محاولة_تحرش_كان_عمري or “My first sexual harassment experience was at age” dominated discussion on several media platforms. Several television programs inviting many of the women who shared their experience online to further expound on their accounts.

Many of the women stated that the posts they published on social media were the first time they had spoken of their early experiences of sexual harassment, having not done so in the past due to guilt or fear of being blamed by family members.

In one post, a woman said that her first experience of sexual harassment occurred at the age of 10. “I was on the beach with my family, and an animal [the man who sexually harassed her] touched me. I did not say anything at the time to make sure that my family did not accuse me of wearing improper clothes,” she wrote.

Several women detailed instances in which they were sexually harassed by close family members.

“He was so jealous about his wife and daughter, and he always doubted his wife’s behavior. She was burdened by years of suffering for the sake of her daughter, and she was divorced when her daughter got married,” one woman wrote, referring to an uncle who had sexually harassed her and other women in her family.

And in cases that did not directly involve family members, many women said that their relatives still responded with indifference when they recounted the incidents.

A woman who was harassed by a 90-year-old stationary store owner when she was almost five said her mother made fun of her when she told her.

“The stationary store owner was too old. Every time I went to buy something, he touched my body. When I told my mom, she was very sarcastic. The residents saw him afterward repeatedly harassing the children and told his son about the man’s practices. And his son prevented the old man from standing in the shop,” she wrote.

Men also used the hashtag as an occasion to share their accounts of sexual harassment, whether as those committing the act or being subject to harassment at a young age. In one post, a young man said he regretted verbally sexually harassing a girl when he was 14. “At the time, I saw the young men in our neighborhood sexually harassing every girl they saw and how they loved that. I felt like I should do this to be identified as a man and be cool like them,” he wrote.

The same man also detailed his first experience of sexual violence at the age of seven, when an older boy forced him to perform oral sex.

“Three years ago, I saw him, and he worked at the same place I used to work. I remembered how I got over the issue and said nothing,” he wrote.

Psychologist Mohamed Bolteya explained to Mada Masr that sexual harassment at a young age can potentially lead to far-reaching psychological effects, including light depression, anxiety disorders, borderline personality disorder, post traumatic stress disorder, depression and suicide in some extreme cases.

“This all depends on the person’s ability to handle the experience and the severity of it,” he added.

The hashtag came on the heels of public outcry after a 20-month-year-old toddler was severely injured after being kidnapped and raped by a 35-year-old man.

Sexual harassment is endemic is Egypt, with 99.3 percent of Egyptian women reporting having been subject to sexual harassment. Dalia Abdel Hamid, a gender and women’s rights officer at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), told Mada Masr that openly sharing such accounts of sexual harassment is a liberating experience.

“Sexual harassment was taboo few years ago, because Egypt’s patriarchal society protected harassers by shaming women to ensure they did not speak about sexual harassment. Openly talking about sexual harassment removed the burden of shaming from the shoulders of women and partially placed it on harassers. This is why these experiences are important,” she explained.

Hamid specifically referred to the efforts of anti-sexual harassment groups that worked on fighting the practice that systematically spread during mass protests in Tahrir Square after the January 2011 revolution. Speaking of sexual harassment and publicly exposing harassers, she said, opened a space for women to talk about more severe experiences of sexual violence.

“More women are speaking about sexual violence in the private sphere now. Girls speak about female circumcision, domestic sexual violence and rape committed by close family members. These experiences are even more painful and difficult to expose than sexual harassment in the street, for example,” Hamid said.

But Boltiya fears that openly sharing these experiences may also be detrimental in certain situations, especially for those who may still be psychologically affected by harassment.

“The narration of these experiences has its own rules. When we conduct group therapy where patients share their experiences, we make sure that all participants will appreciate each other’s feelings, and those who moderate the discussions are experienced and know when they should stop the therapy. Openly sharing this experience online is a major risk, because, many times, people may be met with a lack of appreciation, more harassment and can be further bullied,” he said.

Many the accounts of sexual harassment were indeed met with sarcasm, as many men dismissed them and called them exaggerated. In one tweet, a user sarcastically referred to a difficult school exam as his first rape experience.

“I was 18 when I had my first sexual harassment experience. It was my first midterm in the engineering school. I definitely cannot speak about the ordeal of my rape in the final exam, let alone the quizzes,” he said.

Hamid, however, believes that sexual violence can only be addressed through public discussion.

“A majority of sexual crimes that occur in the private sphere are tolerated by Egyptian laws, that treat them as a matter of privacy,” she said. “The only solution to this is for women to feel that it is their right to speak without being shamed, and that sexual violence is not their fault. All changes when it comes to women’s rights happen after strong public debate and social dialogue and not only through legal reform.”

Editorial comment

Mada Masr chose not to embed the social media posts into the above article to prevent any unsolicited comments directed toward those who used the hashtag to share their personal accounts.