Sexual harassment and women-only transport in Egypt
According to a UN
Women report (April 2013), ninety-nine percent of women in Egypt have experienced a form of sexual harassment, highlighting that public transportation is the second most likely place for the harassment to occur.
Sexual harassment is a major type of harassment that includes any unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favours, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature. In public transport, harassment can include verbal and nonverbal behaviours ranging from lewd remarks, cat calls and whistling, touching, pinching, groping and obstructing female commuters’ way. Staring or leering acts and deliberate contact or groping are the two major types of harassment of rude behaviours. Crude comments or remarks with sexual innuendos and obscene gestures are also fairly common. These types of behaviours can even evolve into more serious forms of harassment such as rape and sexual assault.
General Recommendation GR19 of CEDAW Committee provides a definition of sexual harassment that includes the types of behaviours experienced by women in public spaces, as well as in public transport. GR19 states that “violence against women is a form of discrimination that seriously inhibits women’s ability to enjoy rights and freedoms on a basis of equality with men” and it defines aggressive acts against women as “violence that is directed against a woman because she is a woman or that affects women disproportionately, it includes acts that inflict physical, mental, or sexual harm or suffering (…) whether occurring in public or in private life”.
62 % of Egyptian men admitted to have sexually harassed women
In 2016, of 1,010 women surveyed in Egypt, 83% of female citizens and 98% of foreign women living or travelling in the country had experienced sexual harassment in a public place. In turn, only approximately 2% and 8%, respectively, had reported the incident. This underreporting is consistent worldwide, resulting in a vicious cycle. Daily harassment goes unpunished, which means that it continues to flourish and, as it continues, it is considered as something normal to endure rather than speak out about and thus it continues to go unreported. A study conducted by the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights in 2008 (ECWR 2008) showed that 62% of men admitted to have sexually harassed women.
In the past, laws have not been adequately enforced, and this has helped in spreading the idea that sexual harassment is not really a crime.
Founded in 2010, HarassMap is an initiative intended to engage the Egyptian society to create an environment where sexual harassment is not tolerated. It believes that building a strong social consensus against sexual harassment will inhibit harassers. Volunteers all over Egypt work with people and institutions to stand up to sexual harassment using evidence from reports and communications campaigns. HarassMap creates informational and educational material and offers workshops and other support aiming to motivate a critical mass of bystanders to stand up to harassers. Numerous awareness and training campaigns were held to encourage public transport users to unite against harassers when they witness gender-based incidents. They also support shops, cafes, transportation companies, large businesses, and schools and universities in enforcing a zero-tolerance policy against sexual harassment in their space.
Women are more sensitive to safety concerns and tend to self-limit their movements
Basic mobility needs of women and men are different: women tend to travel shorter distances, closer to their home, and they often make more trips. They travel for a wider variety of purposes; they walk more; they have less access to a car and they make more chained trips.
Women are more sensitive to safety concerns and tend to self-limit their movements and activities affecting negatively their professional development and personal wellbeing because of perceptions of risk. Unfortunately, the fear of what might happen affects women in different ways, making it quite complex to interpret or to make suggestions on how best to deal with the problem.
Gender-related violence on the way to school, inside or nearby schools, in transport and public spaces can be an impediment to the empowerment of women and contribute to school drop-outs (Mina SaidiSharouz, 2012). Dear and Wolch (1989) describe accessibility to transportation as a necessary precondition to accessibility to the workplace, especially for those who use public transport due to non-availability of any other choices. Research shows that compared to men, women represents a larger proportion of public transportation captive riders. For these women, access to public transport is crucial as it allows them access to employment, educational and leisure opportunities. Public transport is also an important enabler in accessing the public sphere without which women may be kept away from schools. While studying effects of sexual harassment on work, Fitzgerald et alii (1997) found that women who had been harassed reported higher frequency of absenteeism at work than those who had not been harassed. They reported also cases of women quitting their jobs because of having been sexually harassed.
In the Egyptian Penal Code, sexual harassment is a crime.
According to the articles 306 (a) and 306 (b) of Law No. 58 of 1937of the Egyptian Penal Code, sexual harassment is a crime. In 2014, the Presidential Decree No. 50 modified articles 306(bis)(a) and 306(bis)(b) of the Penal Code by creating new penalties against the act of sexual harassment and increasing existing penalties against sexual assault.
Article 306(bis)(a) provides that individuals who carry out sexual or obscene gestures in any manner, including by modern means of communication, will be punished with a term of imprisonment of not less than six months or a fine of EGP3,000.
Article 306(bis)(b) states that if the harassment is done with the intent of receiving sexual gratification from the victim, the punishment will be a term of imprisonment of not less than one year and a fine of EGP10,000-20,000. Moreover, any individual who uses duress to receive sexual gratification will be punished with a term of imprisonment of between two and five years and a fine of EGP20,000-50,000.
In addition, article 278 of the Penal Code against public indecency is sometimes used in sexual harassment cases as well as articles 267 and 268. Article 268 refers to violation of ‘decency’ or ‘honour’ rather than explicit physical sexual assault and article 267 pertains to the act of vaginal rape.
Denouncing sexual harassment in transport
In 2010, “678” (in Arabic: ???? ???) a film directed by Mohamed Diab, denounced sexual harassment in Egypt. The film, based on true stories, captures the details of the sexual harassment three Egyptian women of different social classes experience on the streets of Cairo. The richest of them leaves her husband as he refuses to support her after she gets harassed in a highly-publicised case, and she launches a national initiative to shed light on the phenomenon and raise awareness.
The poorest of the women, Fayza, experiences sexual harassment on public busses on the way to her job. Belonging to the lowest-income population group, she is forced to take the bus daily to access her job. Economically, she cannot afford taking taxis and the psychological violence she had to suffer leads her to reject any kind contact even from her husband. Harassment in public transport can include men following women after disembarking and stalking as well as men use the women’s section to enter and exit the carriages and use the opportunity to engage in deliberate contact. As she gets more perverted touches, she starts reacting by secretly stabbing her harassers with a tiny needle. In the film, public authority is represented by a policeman who tries to hide Fayza’s misconduct as he admits that laws do not protect women from harassers appropriately.
Women-only transport: a solution?
In response to gender-based violence rise in public transport, transport authorities have provided women-only services where female customers can travel safely without the risk of encountering men. In Cairo, one of the government’s primary responses was the creation of dedicated sections for women and children on the Metro lines. Starting in2007, on all Cairo Metro trains, the middle two carriages (4th and 5th) of each train are reserved for women (the fifth one becomes accessible to all after 21:00). Although they can still ride other cars freely, women prefer using women-only carriages to escape inappropriate stares and comments. Indeed, these cars are an option for women who do not wish to ride with men in the same car.
In December 2015, responding to women complaints against sexual harassment in public transport during rush hours, the Nile Delta city of Damanhur introduced women-only buses. Six of the 66 government-owned buses have been allocated for women only; five of them are for all women while one is dedicated to women with disabilities. Women used to complain of being incapable to use public transportation explaining that they were often physically unable to reach the bus doors due to men pushing their way onto the buses. Damanhur Governor, Mohamed Sultan, explained that the initiative aims at avoiding the harassment of women and ensuring safe and comfortable travel for female citizens.
Cairo has no women-only bus but many private companies offer high quality bus services with women-exclusive seats, as in the two gated-communities in New Cairo, Rehab and Madinaty.
First operational in2015, Pink Taxi is a taxi service run by female drivers aiming to allow women safe travel in Cairo. The all-female service attempts to address sexual harassment and discrimination by offering cabs with female drivers. The project started its operation with 20 cabs run by female drivers. The all-female service hopes to ensure the safety and comfort of both passengers and drivers. Pink Taxi’s drivers take only pre-booked trips and its cars are equipped with a GPS, a camera, as well as an SOS button that can stop the vehicle and alert the headquarters in case of an emergency. However, the service is not affordable for most of the Egyptian women and the fact that Pink Taxi’s have higher prices than regular taxis makes it an elitist service.
Women feel safer on women-only transport…
Egyptian women are constantly worried or aware of the possibility of getting sexually harassed in public. Thinking that a patriarchal government imposed women-only services to avoid promiscuity is a commonplace: a walk in Cairo immediately shows that indeed women ask for women-only services and they choose them in all freedom for the need of safety.
When it comes to safety issues, it should be noted that women are more exposed than men to gender-based violence when using public transportation, and in particular to sexual harassment. This constrains women’s mobility and their independent use of public and intermediate means of transport. Women need to feel safe in space while travelling, and often crowed public transportation inhibits them, especially during rush hours.
Women-only transport can be a tool to guarantee their safety in public spaces. These services create a ‘safe space’, both physically and emotionally. As a result, women feel supported, develop confidence, achieve greater independence and higher self-esteem. Women-only services deliver better outcomes for women, which then have even wider social and economic impacts. The benefits of women-only transport are likely to be significant, for example, by preventing harassment and improving women’s job opportunities as in Pink Taxis.
… but is this solution causing more segregation?
Most members of the Egyptian feminist movements condemned women-only transport stating that it causes segregation; they consider it an unsatisfactory solution. Dalia Abd El-Hameed, head of the Gender Program at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, expressed her disapproval of the segregation solution reckoning that once women alight women-only carriages on every metro line they still have to walk in dangerous public spaces because this solution does not adequately address the underlying cultural context and inappropriate behaviours. Harassers cause significant harm not only to public transport passengers, but to the viability of public transport as a whole.
Sexual harassment is a worldwide phenomenon
Countries in their efforts to mainstream gender into transport have implemented different measures directed at improving the safety of the transport system, accounting for women’s specific safety needs. Great Britain and Mexico are reported here as an example.
In Great Britain, harassers are subject to a Sexual Harm Offenders Prevention Order (SHOPO) which the subject must comply with. Breaching a SHOPO is punishable with five years’ imprisonment. Conditions imposed by the British Transport Police following conviction include: not to enter alone any station or train within England and Wales; and not to communicate with a female person by the use of words or behaviour that is of a sexual nature or by use of words or behaviour which is likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress.
Mexico City launched an initiative called ‘Hazme el Paro’ (an colloquial way of saying “help” or “have my back”) involving local and international feminist organizations, specialists in social norms and behaviour change, app developers, and urban transport organizations. ‘Hazme el Paro’ consists of three main interventions:(i) a marketing campaign that creates a sense of community and states a strong, united opposition to sexual harassment against women; (ii) a smartphone app to facilitate reporting and improve diagnosis; and(iii) a consistent awareness community training on non-confrontational ways of stopping harassment in public transport.
Women can be riders as well as transport planners and operators
Focusing on women-only transport scratches the surface of the issue without digging deeper into the gender biases in transportation planning. Planners rarely acknowledge mobility of care, or the travel needs associated with care and home-related tasks, which are predominantly done by women. Transportation planning that fails to create a safe environment to travel at night is an example of gender bias as well as inadequate public lighting, closed-off passageways between stations, or a lack security at transit stations. Eric Britton, Managing Director of EcoPlan International and founding Editor of World Streets, accuses a lack of female representation in the transport sector overall. Indeed, offering employment opportunities to women in official roles – as bus drivers, subway conductors, and ticket takers – normalizes the presence of women in transit systems, making them less vulnerable. Transport plays a crucial role in socially sustainable development and it can make a big difference in increasing women’s productivity and promoting gender equality.
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