A French television journalist has described how she was sexually assaulted in Tahrir Square just days after the government announced it was planning to rig up a network of CCTV cameras across Cairo in a bid to catch sex pests harassing young girls.
Sonia Dridi, a correspondent for France 24, was surrounded by a gang of young males as she reported from the Egyptian capital on Friday. After being groped for a period of several minutes she was eventually rescued by a fellow reporter who dragged her to safety.
“I was groped everywhere,” she said later.
The incident was the latest in a string of attacks on women and journalists which have blackened the image of Egypt’s revolutionary epicentre.
In June dozens of female protesters demonstrating against harassment were beaten and groped by mobs of angry men inside the square. A number of other reporters have also been molested in Downtown Cairo.
In March last year a group of seven Egyptian women were forced by their military captors to undergo so-called “virginity tests” after being arrested in Tahrir during a rally.
Last week officials announced they were planning to create a network of surveillance cameras along the main streets and squares of Cairo to clamp down on sexual harassment in the city.
According to the country’s state news agency, harassers caught on camera will then have their faces broadcast on television and the internet.
But female activists who spoke to The Independent said that the scheme, though welcome, would not be enough to tackle Egypt’s notorious sexual harassment epidemic.
“If they are going to be putting cameras up in the street then this is OK,” said Karima Kamal, a newspaper columnist who is also a member of the National Council for Women. “But it depends on what they are going to do after they have put them up.”
To the despair of many Egyptians, their country – but especially Cairo – has developed an unsavoury association with sexual harassment.
In much-cited 2008 report, one local NGO reported that 83 per cent of Egyptian women and 98 per cent of foreign women had experienced sexual harassment at one time or another in the country.
“Every day I am harassed,” said Sherine Thabet, a 21-year-old activist who launched a video awareness campaign about the issue.
Her experience is far from unique. And contrary to popular myth, women wearing headscarves or veils are often no less likely to avoid unwanted attention.
The causes are unclear. Many point to the societal strains and anonymity of a mega city like Cairo; others to the difficulties of cash-strapped men buying homes and therefore finding a wife. Religion is also suggested as a factor, though this possibility is dismissed by many victims.
“I’ve been to other places in the Middle East like Morocco and Jordan,” said Engy Ghozlan, co-founder of Harassmap, a website which tracks incidents of sexual harassment across Egypt. “But I haven’t faced the same hostility towards women as I have here.”
It is not just sexual harassment which is generating unease among Egyptian women. Many are also feeling threatened on the political front too.
According to Human Rights Watch, recently published drafts of Egypt’s new constitution – which is currently in the process of being rewritten by an Islamist-dominated assembly – suggest that women’s rights are also under attack.
One article dealing with equality of men and women says that such rights should not be guaranteed if they contradict the ‘rulings of Islamic sharia’.
“It means we are fighting for our rights against Islamic motivations,” said Nadia Hakeem, a 23-year-old who recently took legal action against the Cairo Metro authorities after being attacked on the transport system.
In other respects, however, women are becoming more empowered. Ms Hakeem said she knew of hundreds of cases in recent months where women have reported harassment to the police, while the Facebook pages such as ‘Girls’ Revolution’ have attracted thousands of online followers.
“If we’re fighting for our rights, eventually we will win,” she said.