CAIRO, Egypt (WOMENSENEWS)–Alice Mandell, a 24-year-old U.S. student at the American University in Cairo, does not recommend reporting sex assault incidents to the police in Egypt’s capital city.
Last December Mandell was sexually harassed and robbed near her home in Doqqi, a middle-class Cairo neighborhood. She went, accompanied by male friends, to the police.
"My male friends got royal treatment from the police, while I was told by even the petty clerk at the gate that I had to tell the entire story of what happened," says Mandell. "And every time I said that the assailant grabbed my breast, one of them would smirk. If I was raped, I would definitely not feel comfortable telling the police officers there what happened 20 times over."
Mandell says the official handling her case also told her to meet him in front of a neighborhood McDonald’s at midnight to discuss it further; she declined.
"If you are a woman and you want to report something, you really don’t know how you’re going to be met at the police station," says Mariz Tadros, a professor of political science at the American University in Cairo. "Even if, in the best-case scenario, they do file a report, then what? It’s a very slow process, there’s a very good chance that the judge assigned won’t be gender-sensitive, and you’ll need very strong evidence, which is often problematic."
Only 1.7 percent of 2,800 women surveyed on their experience with sexual harassment by the Cairo-based Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights said they reported incidents to the police. The May 18 survey found that 40 percent of professional women experienced harassment "regularly," 32 percent of women under 18 experienced it "daily or more" and 30 percent of women overall reported "obscene gestures or words." More than half of incidents occur on the streets or in public transit.
‘Decline in Public Interaction’
Many women here see the appointment of a group of 30 female judges to the bench in March as a step in the right direction, but not one that will change anything overnight. "The harassment phenomenon is not due to the judicial system per se," said Maria Golia, a journalist and commentator on women’s issues, "but to a general decline in the style and quality of public interactions."
People are afraid of getting involved with the police, Golia said, which she attributed to the national emergency law that has been in effect continuously since the 1981 assassination of President Anwar Sadat and which left citizens with little recourse against governmental excess.
The problems of street safety for women in Egypt became international news in October 2006 when over a dozen women were sexually assaulted by mobs in downtown Cairo during the Muslim holiday of Eid that follows Ramadan, the month of fasting and heightened attention to spiritual matters.
Publicity of the assaults was spurred by Wael Abbas, a journalist who witnessed the attacks along with several friends and documented them with his camera phone. The pictures on his Arabic-language blog (misrdigital.blogspirit.com) and his accompanying narrative were later publicized on a local talk show.
"This is a society dominated by males, so if a women is harassed, she is told it is her fault for dressing a certain way, walking provocatively or walking late at night," Abbas recently told Women’s eNews. "Two girls were harassed last year, and when they went to report it, the police accused them of prostitution. People will not believe that a woman who has filed a report is being political; they will think it is a question of her morals."
Outrage over the Eid attacks moved from the blogosphere to the streets with several rallies organized by bloggers, activists and women’s groups. The November rallies were heavily policed.
No Proof of Attacks Found
Under pressure to acknowledge the attacks, government officials have insisted, through articles and editorials in state-sponsored news media, they were made up in order to defame Egypt’s image. They point to the fact that no police reports were filed as proof that the attacks never happened.
The press officer of the Ministry of the Interior did not answer repeated calls from Women’s eNews requesting an interview for this story.
Although the Eid attacks made headlines, it was not the first time large-scale harassment took place in Egypt. During pro-democracy protests in May 2005 Dr. Magda Adly, director of the Cairo-based Al-Nadim Center for Psychological Rehabilitation and Treatment of Victims of Torture, says she witnessed the sexual harassment of a number of activists and journalists.
"They focused on females of all ages, cutting their clothes until they were nearly bare, touching all parts of the body, and the police were sharing in this," Adly says. "The police said ‘come over here, we will protect you,’ and then they gave the women to the criminals."
Adly says several of the victims subsequently went to the attorney general to charge the Ministry of Interior with the violations, but were told–after a year of inaction–that the cases were closed because they could not identify the perpetrators.
Adly says she and the victims submitted photo and video documentation of the attacks, along with testimonies from bloggers and citations from major news sources.
Investigating ‘Systemic Torture’
Adly says the problem goes beyond streets that are unsafe for women. She says women face a judicial system that includes "systemic torture."
In 1993 Adly’s group began investigating instances of torture in Egypt, based on victims’ testimony. It produced its first report in 1997 and has steadily produced specialized reports since then that focus on different groups of victims, such as women and Sudanese refugees.
One report, published in 2004, "Days of Torture: Experiences of Women in Police Stations," lists 62 cases of assault and sexual violence over a nine-year period, from 1994 to 2003. Cases often involved female relatives of suspected criminals who were tortured until the suspect turned himself in.
One testimony is by a woman named Sa’adiya, whose relative was suspected of murder. "They brought me first to Al-Zahra’ and later to the Helwan Station. We sat in this kind of freezer . . . The officer in front of us ordered the others to urinate on the ground next to us. I tried to get into the corner so I wouldn’t see, and they beat me with a whip all over my body, and ripped my clothes off and left me naked. Three days without sleep and two or three times a day they stripped me naked." She goes on to say that an officer bound her with a thick rope while she was naked and beat her.
Adly says the officer that Sa’adiya identifies in her account is notorious for his abuses of detainees and has been transferred to a new police station in Basateen, adjacent to the upscale suburb of Maadi.
She says he has turned away two women seeking to file complaints regarding an alleged criminal in the neighborhood who has been targeting women and stabbing them in the breasts and buttocks since January.
Anna Louie Sussman is a freelance journalist based in Cairo, Egypt.