As a blonde woman living in Cairo, I've experienced a fair share of harassment. I was warned about this before moving to Egypt, and so far I've done my best to thwart it. I no longer wear flattering clothes - though my sister would argue this wasn't a problem to begin with - and I have since removed the words "Seeks Attention" from my forehead. To my chagrin, those words were actually written in invisible ink, only perceptible by Egyptian men.
The first two months I lived in Cairo the harassment was just annoying. "Oh, very nice! What's your name?" was a common refrain, normally arising from clusters of teenage boys. I taught high school for three years, so I'm familiar with the antics superfluous quantities of testosterone can produce. I brushed it off. If I was feeling especially cheery - and had a strong drink in my hand - I might even laugh about it later. "They're just being teenage boys," I'd say. Of course, in common parlance, "being teenage boys" is a euphemism for "acting like idiots."
To get to my office, I must first walk across the Tahrir Bridge, a main artery off the iconic epicenter of Egypt's Revolution. On any given day between three to six groups of guys will harass me. If air is particularly calm or I'm wearing blue or it's an odd-numbered day of the month, there may be more. Sometimes they'll pretend to block my path. Sometimes they'll make sounds. I've had one young man walk like a zombie in my direction. Requests for pictures are not uncommon.
When these things happen, I question my decision to walk to work. I could have sidestepped the issue by simply hopping in a cab. As harassment abounds, it seems as though I've made a poor choice, like eating too much candy. But there is a major difference between knowing an economy-sized bag of jellybeans will give you a bellyache and eating them regardless, and knowing a group of men will harass you when you walk across a certain bridge. Gorging oneself on jellybeans is not a human right (though they probably should be). Freedom of movement is. I shouldn't feel like a trailblazer because I refuse to seek refuge in a cab.
The longer I live in Cairo, the more outraged I become by the frequency of these events. As far as I'm concerned there is little difference between harassing a woman with "Oh, very nice! What's your name?" and "%$#^ you *$#@!" At the end of the day, it's not about what the men are saying, but their belief that they have the right to say it to you.
But catcall enthusiasts may have met their match. Harassmap is a new initiative aimed a curbing harassment in Egypt. The online site allows women to report and document incidences of sexual harassment to the site by emailing, tweeting, texting or completing an online form. Women can even sign up for direct and immediate alerts. Details of reported incidences, including the nature of the occurrence and where it happened, are all available, as are first hand accounts from the victims.
Two days ago, en route to my office, I passed a man touching himself on the sidewalk. We happened to be the only two people on that given block, and though he was not looking at me directly, I couldn't help but feel uncomfortable. Whatever his reason for the lewd behavior, it was inappropriate. So I reported the incident to Harrassmap. It took all of three minutes. Had I been able to read street signs in Arabic, it would have taken less time. Of course no one is going to catch the creep who was enjoying himself so unbecomingly and publically, but at least other women who walk through the area will know he's out there.
It's easy to feel helpless when confronted with nonstop harassment, especially in a male-dominated society. In Egypt, this doesn't just happen to foreign women. It happens to all women. That includes those wearing a hijab. Initiatives such as Harrassmap offer a glimmer a hope. If we continue to take a stand, objectifying and intimidating women might just become less institutionalized. So, why limit such a great idea to Egypt? Women are harassed on every continent, country, state and city. And though Harrassmap may not single out the transgressors, it sends a message of intolerance and gives women a platform to be heard. So, thank you, Harassmap!