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Egyptian Group Battling Sexual Assault Takes Message Into New Arena

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Young women cross the street arm in arm in Talaat Harb Square in downtown Cairo.
Young women cross the street arm in arm in Talaat Harb Square in downtown Cairo.Credit: BLOOMBERG NEWS

A small makeup case, a volume of the Koran, a pocket diary, face cream, a red dress – these are some of the feminine items placed at the entrance to a small theater in Cairo, and from which the audience is asked to choose ahead of the unique play about to be staged.

The scenery on the stage, which is constructed of wooden planks, is simple and minimalistic. It consists of a transparent curtain, through which the silhouetted figures of five women are visible. Their faces are hidden and only their voices are heard. Each one speaks in turn. They aren’t professional actors but a random group of women, each of whom has a personal story of abuse, rape, enslavement or sexual harassment. Each one is the owner of one of the objects placed for the audience to choose, and when the spectator displays an object, its owner begins her story.

One told about how she was beaten when she asked to go out to work, another about how she was raped as a child by her brother, and so on. The audience is composed mainly of women, but there are also men who express their understanding and nod their heads in agreement, as though they themselves underwent those experiences.

This theater performance, which is being staged in many Egyptian cities, is part of the BuSSy ("Look") Project, initiated by director Sondos Shabayek, a graduate of the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at the American University in Cairo. It is designed not only to increase awareness of the extent of violence against women, but also to provide the victims with a means of therapy.

The project website presents dozens of short, moving stories in video clips describing harassment on the subway, in government ministries and in the street. Women are invited to tell their stories via a link on the website; some of them, and their heroines, will make their way to a stage.

This initiative started in 2004 at Cairo University, where the anti-sexual harassment unit was started. It began with students who, together with the administration, were looking for original ways of spreading information about the phenomenon. At first they initiated lectures and seminars, but they soon realized that this traditional method doesn’t help to bring the subject to the general public. Toward the end of last year they began to hold festivals and musical performances throughout the campus in order to attract the students.

Last November they changed the strategy somewhat, and instead of bringing the students together in one place, they recruited the university orchestra, which held half-hour performances next to the buildings of various departments. They played classical Arabic music, the songs of famous singers and jazz selections, which proved to be a magnet for the students in the building who rushed to join in, voice their opposition to sexual harassment and peruse leaflets explaining the phenomenon.

At the end of every performance the students were asked to register for the project, and the response proved to be overwhelming. The initiators of the project expanded their activities on the campuses, staging puppet shows and organizing bicycle and marathon races while also increasing the activity of the BuSSy theater group.

93 percent of victims don't file complaints

Although Egyptian law has changed in recent years and the punishment for sexual harassment has become harsher, over 93 percent of the women who were victimized refrain from filing a complaint. Most don't go to the authorities because of the disgrace to their family; some because of pressure from their family and surroundings. A United Nations study conducted in Egypt indicates that in about 40 percent of harassment incidents that took place in the street, the public made no attempt to intervene. About 8 percent of the victims tried to commit suicide.

The huge gap between the law and its implementation led MP Zeinab Salem to declare that she would submit a draft bill to permit castration of harassers. Salem knows that such a proposal would never pass in Egypt’s male chauvinist parliament. But in an interview with the website Raseef22 she explains that her intention was “to throw a stone into a pool of stagnant water,” to arouse a debate and a public discussion to shake up Egyptian society. “It would be enough if they castrated one man in Egypt to deter the entire society,” explains Salem. It would also prevent the need for women to testify to the police and to endure further humiliation.

Women are not the only victims of sexual harassment and violence. According to the National Council for Childhood and Motherhood, in 2014 there were over 1,000 instances of sexual attacks against children. The organization’s chairwoman, Dr. Hoda Badran, says over 3,000 cases are not reported for fear that such a report would stamp the children with the mark of Cain.

Bardan attributes the increase in sexual harassment against women and children to the absence of supervision and enforcement, neglect by schools and public downplaying of the phenomenon. The problem is not the laws protecting women, but the lack of enforcement. In fact, Egyptian law views sexual assault against children as less serious than rape of women. Rape of boys is defined as an insult to honor, which carries a punishment of five years, while rape of women can lead to life imprisonment and even execution. “Apparently the law is interested only in damage to virginity, all the rest is a petty matter,” according to Ahmed Musailahi, head of the Child Protection Authority.

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