Egypt’s streets have long been a perilous place for women, who are frequently heckled, grabbed, threatened and violated while the police look the other way. Now, during the country’s tumultuous transition from authoritarian rule, more and more groups are emerging to make protecting women — and shaming the do-nothing police — a cause.
“They’re now doing the undoable?” a police officer joked as he watched the vigilantes chase down the young man. The officer quickly went back to sipping his tea.
The attacks on women did not subside after the uprising. If anything, they became more visible as even the military was implicated in the assaults, stripping female protesters, threatening others with violence and subjecting activists to so-called virginity tests. During holidays, when Cairenes take to the streets to stroll and socialize, the attacks multiply.
But during the recent Id al-Adha holiday, some of the men were surprised to find they could no longer harass with impunity, a change brought about not just out of concern for women’s rights, but out of a frustration that the post-revolutionary government still, like the one before, was doing too little to protect its citizens.
At least three citizens groups patrolled busy sections of central Cairo during the holiday. The groups’ members, both men and women, shared the conviction that the authorities would not act against harassment unless the problem was forced into the public debate. They differed in their tactics: some activists criticized others for being too quick to resort to violence against suspects and encouraging vigilantism. One group leader compared the activists to the Guardian Angels in the United States.
“The harasser doesn’t see anyone who will hold him accountable,” said Omar Talaat, 16, who joined one of the patrols.
The years of President Hosni Mubarak’s rule were marked by official apathy, collusion in the assaults on women, or empty responses to the attacks, including police roundups of teenagers at Internet cafes for looking at pornography.
“The police did not take harassment seriously,” said Madiha el-Safty, a sociology professor at the American University in Cairo. “People didn’t file complaints. It was always underreported.”
Mr. Mubarak’s wife, Suzanne, who portrayed herself as a champion of women’s rights, pretended the problem hardly existed. As reports of harassment grew in 2008, she said, “Egyptian men always respect Egyptian women.”
Egypt’s new president, Mohamed Morsi, has presided over two holidays, and many activists say there is no sign that the government is paying closer attention to the problem. But the work by the citizens groups may be having an effect: Last week, after the Id al-Adha holiday, Mr. Morsi’s spokesman announced that the government had received more than 1,000 reports of harassment, and said that the president had directed the Interior Ministry to investigate them.
“Egypt’s revolution cannot tolerate these abuses,” the spokesman quoted Mr. Morsi as saying.
Azza Soliman, the director of the Center for Egyptian Women’s Legal Assistance, dismissed the president’s words as “weak.” During the holiday, she said, one of her sons was beaten on the subway after he tried to stop a man who was groping two foreign women. The police tried to stop him from filing a complaint. “The whole world is talking about harassment in our country,” Ms. Soliman said. “The Interior Ministry takes no action.”
For years, anti-harassment activists have worked to highlight the problems in Egypt, but the uprising seemed to give the effort more energy and urgency.