A scene from Cairo's streets

CAIRO, Egypt (WOMENSENEWS)–When Egypt’s new parliament convenes in early February, some members will be proposing a law to strengthen penalties against sexual offenders by increasing jail time and fines.

The bill will also put more pressure on police to crack down on perpetrators by calling on them to intervene when incidents occur and not to remain passive bystanders when women demand justice.

Because both the ruling National Democratic Party and the opposition Muslim Brotherhood movement are promoting the bill, many onlookers expect it to pass.

“I believe it is time for Egypt to move forward on this issue and the bill proposed is the best chance because there is no opposition from the government or the opposition parties,” said the head of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, Hafez Abu Saeda. “So we are optimistic that it will pass.”

The bill follows two high-profile sentences in sexual assault cases last year that staffers at the New Women’s Foundation in Cairo say have spurred female victims of sexual assault and street harassment to seek advice on how to press charges against offenders.

“Already we are seeing women more willing to go and deal with the abuses against them,” said Amal Abdel Hadi, president of the foundation. “It is because of the court cases that women are coming out to speak (about) what happened to them.”

One of last year’s groundbreaking cases was brought by Noha Rushdi, a 27-year-old documentary filmmaker from Israel who was groped on the street by a man who leaned out of a car window to grab her breasts.

Last October the court sentenced the man to three years in prison under the current sexual harassment laws and fined him nearly $900.

Government Takes Notice

Nehad Abu Komsan, head of the Cairo-based Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights, said the publicity surrounding that case and the arrest of dozens of attackers in recent months are signs that the government is beginning to take more notice of what had become a notorious problem.

“I am optimistic the new year will be better for women, especially with a new law expected to be passed.”

She argues that while Rushdi’s case shows women can get justice in the country, many still remain silent over harassment.

“Women are moving forward, but it is slow,” Abu Komsan said, “because for many women they believe it is their fault that they are harassed or assaulted. So hopefully with more cases like Rushdi’s, women will be confident to go public.”

Two reports came out last year on harassment and violence against women. The first, released by the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights in July, found that 98 percent of foreign women and 60 percent of Egyptian women are harassed on a daily basis. The study was conducted on a sample of over 2,000 women in four governorates in the country, including Cairo and Giza.

A government report in November found 47 percent of married women between 15 and 49 are subjected at least once to physical violence. Among married women, 33 percent are physically abused and 7 percent are sexually abused before marriage. The report found 18 percent of Egyptian women subjected to psychological violence in the form of name calling and demeaning and intimidating behaviors by a man.

Doubtful of Continued Enforcement

Youssri Mohamed Bayoumi, a member of parliament from the Muslim Brotherhood party, doubts whether the new law will be adequately enforced.

“We have seen a new traffic law implemented, but nothing has really changed, so why do we believe that a new harassment law will get the job done?” he said at a roundtable discussion in October.

The traffic law was an attempt by the government to help reduce the number of traffic accidents on Egypt’s motorways that kill around 6,000 people annually. However, despite the law, which included seat belt requirements, speed limits and harsher penalties for violators, police have done little, if anything, to crack down, Bayoumi argued.

While Rushdi’s legal victory last fall has raised the hopes of many women’s rights activists here, it has also divided some former allies.

Less than one week after the conviction, Nagla Imam, a lawyer who initially supported Rushdi, charged that the Israeli citizen was attempting to tarnish Egypt’s image and was using the case for her own personal gains.

Imam and another lawyer, Nabih Al Wahash, filed a lawsuit with the general prosecutor in Cairo against Rushdi, calling for her arrest for “harming national security and lying about the charges.” The prosecutor refused the charges.

In a brief phone interview Rushdi said she had no intention of becoming a hero for Egyptian women. “I simply wanted to have justice against a man who assaulted me, so I don’t understand all the controversy,” she said.

Second Conviction

After Rushdi’s victory, a Cairo court sentenced another man to one year in prison in a separate incident involving a mob attack against female bystanders on the busy Gameat Al Dowal street in the Mohandiseen area.

Nehad Abu Komsan, the head of the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights, was overjoyed. “The police did something. This is definitely a welcome change from the past when police just sit by and let men attack women.”

In November, Egyptian first lady Suzanne Mubarak–who has long allied herself with women’s rights activists–went on TV to downplay the idea of excessive street harassment in Egypt.

“Egyptian men always respect Egyptian women,” the first lady said in a TV interview with pan-Arabic news network Al Arabiya after the presenter showed her a number of recent assault claims made by women, including Rushdi. “This gives the impression that the streets in Egypt are not safe. That is not true . . . the media have exaggerated,” Mubarak continued. “Maybe one, two or even 10 incidents occurred. Egypt is home to 80 million people. We can’t talk of a phenomenon. Maybe a few scatterbrained youths are behind this crime.”

The first lady suggested that some of the negative media could have been motivated by Islamist militant factions. “And maybe some people wanted to make it seem as though the streets of Egypt are not safe so girls and women stay at home. This could be their agenda,” she said in a reference to Islamist militants.

Her claim that militants are hijacking harassment for political reasons has been discounted by leading activists, including Abu Komsan and Abdel Hadi.

“Her claims really show that some people do not want to really talk about this issue,” Abu Komsan said.

“What people say about Islamic militants taking this issue is ridiculous because they have been against us for a long time. We must educate everyone on this real issue that is affecting so many women here.”

Joseph Mayton is a journalist based in Cairo, Egypt. He writes regularly for Middle East Times, The Media Line, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs and a number of other international publications.

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