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Breaking the silence

Breaking the silence

January 14 2015

By Charlotte Knight
  • Social Exclusion

With thanks to Hussein Elshafei, HarassMap Community Mobilisation Unit Head, for writing this blog post.

You realise that a certain crime has reached crisis level when its discourse is limited to an elite group, namely researchers, artists and social activists whereas the streets, where the crime is perpetrated by the hour, are preoccupied with other seemingly more important topics. That has been the case with sexual harassment in Egypt until December 2010, when four girls decided to put an end to the social acceptability of sexual harassment and shift its discourse from office and coffeehouse conversations to harmonise with the loud familiar street buzz.



After a series of failed attempts to avert sexual harassment, including abiding by sincere advice from close friends and family members regarding their looks, attire, outdoors mode, hours and company, the co-founders of HarassMap, came to understand that no matter how far they go fixing up their life to claim their street safety, there will always be room for being held accountable for the harassment that befalls them, based on harmful gender beliefs, customary code or even superstition. That set of players helped create a discriminatory status quo that successfully took away the blame associated with sexual harassment from the perpetrator and placed it onto the victim. In addition, whatever imperfections found their way to the integrity of this status quo were masterfully decorated by privileged patriarchal explanations, failing to acknowledge women’s inherent rights to public space and safety from violence.



Backed by one particularly disturbing sociological study, that stated that 83% of local women and 98% of foreign women had experienced sexual harassment, the girls decided to break the silence around the issue and started to collect reports via SMS, website, and social media channels in pursuit of documenting this underrated phenomenon. They used geographical representation to demonstrate the magnitude of sexual harassment and added a layer to the map, which allows users to read the detailed reports, keeping the anonymity of the reporters intact. The anonymity factor encouraged many victims of sexual harassment to share their stories; the very stories that might otherwise subject them to blame, scandal or incarceration if shared openly even within intimate social circles.

A few hours after the launch of www.harassmap.org, the website crashed. An overwhelming number of messages of gratitude, sexual harassment reports, eyewitness testimonies and volunteer requests compelled the core team to go ahead with the next step of taking the online map to the offline world. Groups of volunteers nationwide started taking printouts of the map and reports, on neighbourhood outreach days, targeting bystanders who witness and often participate in acts of sexual harassment, to convince them to speak up to harassers, scold harassers, and let them know their behavior is unwelcome. The initial offline reaction to HarassMap’s volunteers was as rewarding as the online reaction to the map. Nearly 8 out of every 10 bystanders approached, promised to speak up against sexual harassment and to condemn the act. However, as time passed, HarassMap volunteers discovered that it takes a lot more than a promise to change behavior around such a sensitive topic.