Egyptian women have a new message for abusive men in their country: "Be a man and protect her … rather than harass her."
So goes the slogan for the "Atta Eedak" (Cut off your hand) youth campaign against sexual harassment, which was recently launched in a number of Egyptian provinces.
"The campaign […] started with anti-harassment graffiti in the streets of Cairo and a number of rallies in the provinces of Giza, Cairo, Dakahlia, Alexandria and Menoufia," said Sherine Thabet, who created the initiative.
The idea stemmed from a long commentary Thabet posted on her Facebook wall, where she recounted incidents of harassment experienced by her close friends. Soon thereafter, the entry went viral, with thousands of Egyptians posting appreciative comments.
The campaign now has 23,000 supporters on Facebook, she said.
In the upcoming period, campaign participants will hold rallies and protests in many provinces, carrying signs and banners and projecting films on large display screens in the streets, she said.
Other activities include seminars, conferences and monthly demonstrations in a large number of provinces, where participants form human chains and raise banners with anti-harassment slogans.
During demonstrations organised by the campaign, participants have taken to the streets carrying banners with slogans like "I am not a spectacle, I am just like you", "Get a grip on yourself, not on my clothes", "Education means that you learn not just languages but self-respect, too" and "The Egyptian woman has the right to walk freely". Often derived from Egyptian slang and popular proverbs, these slogans are among the campaign's most important weapons, activists said.
Thabet told Al-Shorfa the root of the harassment problem lies in the fact that society does not recognise its existence. Other factors include the victims' silence and the harassers' perception that society "granted him immunity from punishment" on the grounds that the woman's "behaviour drove men to harass her", she added.
On its Facebook page, the campaign is defined as a "community-based grassroots initiative against the various forms of abuse suffered by women in Egyptian society" and says participants view "sexual harassment as one of the worst forms of intellectual terrorism women could face in any society".
Egypt's sexual harassment issue first came under public scrutiny in 2008, when Cairo's criminal court sentenced Sharif Gibril to three years of hard labour in prison and fined him 5,000 pounds ($822) for harassing a woman named Noha Rushdi.
A recent survey conducted by the Egyptian Centre for Women's Rights found that 83% of female participants are repeatedly subjected to various forms of sexual harassment.
According to the survey, many women on the Egyptian street encounter wolf whistles, verbal harassment, inappropriate stares, indecent touching, lewd remarks, unwanted pursuit, stalking and harassing phone calls.
The study also revealed that the vast majority of women do not report sexual harassment, with only 2 % reporting the incident to the police.
Despite this, progress is being made. Many youth movements have emerged following the January 25 revolution, such as the "Nafsi" (Myself), "Respect Yourself", "Girls of Egypt are a red line" and the "No to sexual harassment" movements.
"Atta Eedak" campaign participant Nahi al-Sayed, 23, said a dream of hers is to see society give high priority to this issue, which caused psychological damage in millions of girls and women.
"Girls in Egypt live under tremendous pressure," al-Sayed said. "They are afraid to tell their families they were harassed because their families will lay the blame on them for going out with friends or walking alone in the street."
"At the same time, they know they cannot punish the harasser because many [in the community] do not perceive harassment to be a problem in the first place," she said.
Twenty-eight year-old Marwa Ali, a supporter of "Atta Eedak" and other anti-harassment campaigns, told Al-Shorfa that raising society's awareness about the seriousness of this phenomenon is the most important step towards achieving any kind of lasting remedy.
"Every girl and woman must take positive steps towards eradicating this phenomenon, whether through becoming active participants of anti-harassment campaigns or making their daughters aware [of the importance of reporting] harassment incidents and making them public. This way, harassers will be shunned [by the community] and the phenomenon diminished," Ali said.
In addition to the growing number of youth movements, activists are also pressing government action by calling for a law that criminalises all forms of sexual harassment.
Dr. Samer Suleiman, a senior member in the Social Democratic Party, told Al-Shorfa, "The prevalence of this phenomenon has risen significantly in the past year, which calls to find radical solutions to this problem."
"Therefore, it is imperative legislation is enacted to allow authorities and the community to act and curb this phenomenon."
However, he admitted that new laws are not the only solution.
"Government agencies like the interior ministry, the ministry of social affairs and university research centres should work on providing practical solutions to curtail the problem because legislation alone will not eliminate it", he added.