CAIRO— Egypt’s Cairo University this month became the first public university in the region’s most populous state to adopt a sexual harassment policy, a move hailed as a first milestone by professors and activists who led the effort and as first step in spreading the policy to other Egyptian universities.
“Sexual harassment is a problem all over the world,” said Hoda Elsadda, a professor of English and Comparative Literature at Cairo University who started the policy initiative with other professors. “It’s a problem you find in the workplace, at universities and most places have policies about this. We didn’t have these policies because sexual harassment for a very long time was a taboo issue—people didn’t recognize its existence officially, people hesitated to talk about it.”
“This has changed over the last three years and it has become a public issue and a subject of debate… so we found this to be an opportunity to introduce a policy at Cairo University,” she added
The policy, which was not released in print to Al Fanar Media since a final draft is still being reviewed, coincides with broader as well as global efforts to combat harassment. In January, U.S. President Barack Obama established the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault. It aims to identify the scope of the problem on college campuses in the U.S., help prevent campus sexual assault, assist schools to respond effectively to cases and improve as well as make more transparent the federal government’s enforcement efforts, a White House statement said.
One in five women is sexually assaulted while at university in the U.S., according to the statement.
In Egypt, harassment on campus was thrust into the limelight in March when a young woman was assaulted by a mob at Cairo University. The case drew further outrage when university President Gaber Nasser said the woman, who was wearing pants and a long-sleeve shirt, provoked the men with “inappropriate clothing,” and declared that both she and the attackers would be punished.
Nasser later retreated from those statements, insisting harassment is inexcusable, rights groups said. But his sentiments reflected widespread tendencies in Egypt to blame victims for a problem that is pervasive.
In a study published with the support of the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women last year, 99.3% of women and girls surveyed in Egypt reported they had been subject to harassment: This includes telephone stalking, verbal abuse, groping, dirty looks and rape. School or university students were responsible for harassment in almost 62% of cases, the survey showed.
The new policy at Cairo University, to be implemented in September, states that no form of sexual harassment will be tolerated at the university and provides a framework for enabling students and professors to safely report harassment, according to a statement by Harassmap, an independent initiative that worked on the policy.
In practice, the policy will allow a student to make a complaint to a point person in his or her faculty, who will then take the case to an executive committee—comprised of a majority of women—which will investigate, Elsadda said. Punishment is based on a graded system and could lead to suspension or expulsion, she said.
A more senior committee at Cairo University, which will include the president, deans of five faculties and several professors will be responsible for drafting and monitoring the implementation of the policy, Elsadda said.
Dina Farid, founder and director of Egypt’s Girls Are a Red Line campaign launched two years ago to raise awareness about harassment, said she would also like to see a committee comprised of students overseeing activities related to implementing the policy, in particular because members of staff could be harassing students and other staff members. Farid advises that the rules be well-advertised so those at the university know what sexual harassment is and its consequences. She hopes procedures are in place so victims could, if they choose, take complaints to the police.
Generally, “it’s good to see such policies put in place,” she said. “But hopefully it’s not just a verbal policy—we want to actually see it being implemented.”
Adoption of the policy follows a decree issued by former interim president Adly Mansour in June that criminalized sexual harassment for the first time in Egypt. Days later, after a video of a naked woman being viciously assaulted in Tahrir Square went viral online, newly elected President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi told the nation’s prime minister to form a committee that would create a national strategy to address harassment.
“This is the first time that the government and institutions are even starting to see it,” said Ahmad Hegab, Safe Areas Unit Manager at Harassmap. “For years, they didn’t accept the fact that sexual harassment was happening.”
But Human Rights Watch said amendments to Egypt’s penal code still need improvement and that Egypt still has major gaps in violence-against-women laws. “This level of attention to sexual harassment from an Egyptian president needs to be judged by what actually results [from it],” said Rothan Begum, women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch, in a June statement.
Still, some are now being prosecuted for sexual crimes. On Wednesday, a Cairo court sentenced nine defendants to 20 to 25 years in prison for sexual assault on Tahrir Square, the state news agency MENA reported. Late last month, two men were slapped with two years in jail and EGP 5,000 ($700) in fines for verbally harassing a woman at a mall, while another man was handed a one-year prison sentence for taking a picture of a woman asleep on a bus, according to the Daily News Egypt, an English-language daily.
Yet cases appear to be few and far between considering the sheer amount of harassment incidents that take place daily here, fueling questions about whether or not new policies at state and university levels will prove effective. At Cairo University, numerous factors could inhibit successful implementation, activists said.
“First, it depends on whether girls will take such an initiative to use this policy to their (benefit)—to file complaints,” said Salma ElNaqqash, director of the Women’s Political Participation Academy at Nazra for Feminist Studies in Cairo. “If the girls decide, ‘We don’t want to do this,’ there’s no point of having such a policy.” Another challenge, said ElNaqqesh, is the difficulty for young women to file complaints against their professors since they hold positions of authority.
Moreover, campus security personnel will need to be educated about what harassment is and how to deal with it, activists said, while learning not to blame victims. “And what we don’t know, as of now, is who will be (securing) the university,” said Hegab, at Harassmap. If private companies manage campus security, independent organizations like Harassmap could train guards to handle harassment issues. But if police are reinstalled on campuses—reversing a decision to remove them from public higher learning institutions in 2010—it is unlikely rights activists will be permitted to train them, Hegab said.
Regardless, activists and professors seek to expand the policy’s reach. “We think of Cairo University as a first step and my expectation is that all national universities will follow suit,” Elsadda said, adding that anti-harassment policies are just as important as those addressing plagiarism.
Policies will not eradicate a problem but they will definitely lessen one, address some of the issues, hold people accountable, make people feel they have access to justice and ensure that a complaint procedure will guarantee some justice, she said. “All of that is important.”
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