In Egypt’s Metro, Women Now Patrol
CAIRO—Nihal is an Egyptian woman in her late twenties. Like 99.3 percent of the women in her age group, she faces daily sexual assaults in the streets of Cairo, according to the latest UN report on Women Rights in Egypt. The revolution made her realize that people can unite and that she can make a difference. A trend of mob rapes has risen rapidly in Egypt as political stability and social security have diminished post revolution. Together with a friend she founded an organization called ‘Basma’ to raise awareness about sexual harassment in the streets of this metropolis of 30 million. After gathering dozens of volunteers, they deployed on the streets around Tahrir square and inside the downtown metro stations last year for the first time. Nihal deeply believes that all starts with education, and thus decided to educate the uneducated.
“Our educational system is failing. Governmental schools reach no level and private schools are too expensive. This keeps most of the Egyptian youth uneducated. And it is exactly this group that we find in the streets, bored of life, maltreating women.” Nihal argues.
Egyptian women are often harassed by their fellow countrymen and both sexes tend to take it as a normality. But with ‘Basma’ Nihal started to break this wall of inhuman norms and unacceptable values. Whenever they notice a girl being assaulted, she and her team of volunteers approach the young men or boys to sensitize them.
The first months were a struggle for the organization. The police, themselves often active participants in the assaults, did not take the initiative seriously and caused more problems rather than offering support. But Nihal has noticed a shift over the past few months. For the first time, the police are supporting the initiative and actively participating in assault prevention. Another key phenomenon is the rise of female officers patrolling the metro. Colonel Manal and her nine other women colleagues are especially eager to promote safety in the stations.
The moment is not chosen by accident This week, one of the biggest Muslim festivities is celebrated in the Egyptian streets: El Eid. But unfortunately, this reason to celebrate usually comes with a reason for grieve as well. Remembering the high numbers of sexual assaults during the same period last year, many women are afraid to walk down the streets of their own city. Harassment is a daily problem, but with El Eid in the prospect, private initiatives as well as government related initiatives are on full run. Downtown Cairo has always been a place were sexual harassment reached unseen levels. Only for a couple of days, the first days of Egypt’s revolution in 2011, this phenomenon seemed to have stopped for a while. Tahrirsquare was packed with families and the atmosphere was jovial. But by the end of the eighteen days until the fall of Mubarak, sexual harassment had once again reached a peak. This problem isn’t directly related to one political or religious current, but rather a characteristic of Egyptian cultural over the last decades.
Manal has patrolled Egypt's metro for the past two weeks to raise awareness about sexual assault against women. Very much influenced by Nihal’s initiative ‘Basma’, she argues that official police forces now have more authority and thus can arrest those perpetrators. In contrast to the first days of 'Basma'’s existence, the police now cooperate readily. This week, Nihal and Manal will be working side-by-side.
The difference between men and women in Egypt is still tremendous, and this is to be noticed as well in the metro. Since the nineties, women can travel through the city by metro, separated from men, in one of the wagons reserved for female passengers. But this rule is often violated. Men take their chances right before the metro doors close to jump into the wagon exclusively for women. Occasionally they enter by accident, but most enter on purpose knowing that all women are gathering there together. It is an opportunity for a visual treat, or to stare and make women feel uncomfortable.
“If a man gets into the metro, right before the doors close, what can we do? Sometimes women get angry, but mostly they are afraid and look at the other side while this man is assaulting one of their fellow passengers,” says Nihal. “But when one of them speaks up, usually all of the women will follow. This is why we started this initiative, to make everybody speak up.”
Only a year ago, an Egyptian girl called Samira, for the first time in recent history of the country, filed a charge against one of her perpetrators. She was attacked by several men during a protest against the military rule, and she won the case.
“These stories are still rare. Women are still seen as the instigator rather then the victim of these actions. Therefore, they prefer to keep what happened to them as a secret.” says Nihal. “Moreover, if a girl approaches the police, she often gets harassed by the officers themselves. So having female police officers, in charge of this problem, is an absolute must.” For the last decades female police officers weren’t to be found in the streets of Cairo. This was one of the jobs, put away for men only.
For months, Nihal and a few dozens of volunteers of ‘Basma’ would patrol in the packed metro and the crowded streets of Cairo. Today, Colonel Manal is assisting them at full force. The former moral police officer regards journalists with suspicion—foreign journalists in particular. The interim regime that has ruled the country since President Mohammed Morsi was ousted in July, have launched an anti-media campaign. Depicting all journalists as spies and collaborators with the Muslim Brotherhood, makes Egyptians suspicious of them. But referring to ‘Basma’ breaks the ice.
“Fifty years ago there were as many female police officers as male police officers. This is an equilibrium that has to be returned.” Manal says. “Only in this way can Egyptian women feel safe in the streets of Cairo.” Since laws concerning this issue are not clear it is still very hard to fight this crime, but Manal nevertheless urges all victims of sexual assault to file charges.
Not all women believe there is progress. Hend Elbalouty, 25, witnessed her sister as the victim of a horrible sex mob in Tahrir Square earlier this year. The charges that she filed against the perpetrators never were dealt with properly.
“We are back at square one. A police state that is dysfunctional. The fact that women are now calling the shots wouldn’t change the lawlessness that dominates Egypt’s legal system,” she says wearily.
Mohamed Khamees, a passenger in the male wagon, is not in favor of this initiative. “Fighting against criminals isn’t a job for women. Even for their male colleagues these situations are often uncontrollable, how would these women then be able to master these circumstances?”
Traditional norms and values, with a traditional division of tasks for men and women are still deeply rooted in Egypt’s society.
But Nihal remains optimistic. “The police are finally taking responsibility. It will take a while before men will accept the rule and authority of women, but it is most definitely a step in the right direction.”