Strong court rulings promote hopes of ending sexual harassment in Egypt

15

The past months have carried unprecedented rulings in Egypt against those convicted of harassment and similar cases are expected to be issued in the coming months. Human rights activists concerned with women’s issues hope that they will end with similar rulings that push to strengthen the criminalisation of the phenomena of targeting women, especially sexual harassment.

The latest series of judgments monitored by activists and human rights activists in this context is what the Cairo Criminal Court ruled last week in the case known in the media as “Our Lady of Peace.” The court sentenced three men to 10 years in prison. They were accused of violence against and threatening a woman, which prompted her to throw herself from her apartment balcony after which she died. Before that, the Cairo Criminal Court sentenced the “Maadi harasser” to 10 years in prison for indecent assault of a seven-year-old girl.

At the beginning of last month, the Fayoum Criminal Court, south of Cairo, sentenced a driver convicted of forcibly indecent assault on a girl while walking on the road leading to agricultural land owned by her family. Days later, the Cairo Criminal Court punished Ahmed Bassam Zaki, known as the harasser of the American University, accused of defaming three underage girls and harassing other girls, with eight years imprisonment, in addition to three years that another court sentenced him to last December, on charges of harassing two girls through the Internet.

The Nuzha Misdemeanor Court, at the end of March, sentenced a person accused of committing a flagrant act in front of a girl in the subway, for the purpose of harassment, to three years imprisonment and a fine of EGP 20,000. The courts are looking into other cases in the same framework, the most prominent of which is the case of a doctor accused with his wife of luring underage girls to his clinic and committing indecent offences against them, as well as the bus harasser, who was caught on camera harassing a girl.

These rulings were widely celebrated by those concerned with women’s issues. Some of them considered it the fruit of progress for years, which, with the continued issuance of similar judgments, will push to reduce the phenomena of abuse of women, foremost of which is the phenomenon of harassment that has spread widely during the past years.

In this context, activists supporting women’s rights celebrated, in the middle of last month, the announcement of the start of receiving reports of citizens in all security directorates across the republic who were implicated in cybercrimes. This was one of their demands to facilitate the submission of reports of “electronic harassment,” which has increased recently according to their estimates. They also saw that parliament passed a law last August granting women the right to hide their identity when reporting sexual crimes, making women exposed to these assaults dare to come forward and report them.

The psychological and social counselor, Sahar Talaat, believes that these provisions will play a role in helping those who have been abused to recover. She argues that this development represents a “qualitative leap” in society’s thinking. However, Talaat also stresses the need to take measures to protect the perpetrator’s family from being stigmatised. The perpetrator’s family is not guilty of the offense, and that the punishment must include what helps the perpetrator not to return to the criminal act, not vice versa. She continues: “The perpetrator may be a person who has a stable social life, but he is sick with these destructive behaviours, and when he enters prison for punishment, he practices with him what makes him lose his dignity, and he may be exposed to abnormal behaviours, and if he is not treated, he may come out to society as more brutal.”

The results of a study prepared by the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women showed that about 99 per cent of Egyptian women have experienced some form of sexual harassment, and Cairo was classified in 2017 as the most dangerous city in the world for women.

As for the human rights defender Kawthar El-Khouly, director of Women for Justice, she considers the noticeable increase in these rulings recently as a “positive thing.” She hopes that they will continue to help reduce and eliminate these phenomena. She believes that these provisions are critical to combating sexual harassment, whether at the level of activating the relevant laws, or even at the level of response speed and judgment, because it contains a strong message to future harassers that “beware … you will not get away with your crime this time.”

She notes that in the past, reports of harassment were not taken seriously. Rather, the survivor was pressured to give up her claim under false pretenses. Thus, what is socially required is to provide protection mechanisms for complainants who are victims of sexual harassment, culturally and legally. Al-Khouly stresses the effectiveness of the community’s role in reaching this positive development, appreciating in this context the girls’ daring to document cases of harassment and assault. However, she believes that the provisions of the sexual harassment penalty in the Egyptian law lack a good mechanism for implementation and are limited in describing the crimes that are to be adjudicated, and that their non-activation in many cases gradually helps reinforce the idea that sexual harassment is not a real crime.

Sexual harassment, according to Egyptian law, is considered a crime based on Articles 306 (A) and 306 (B) of the Penal Code, the punishment for whoever commits it is imprisonment for a period ranging between six months and five years in addition to a fine of up to EGP 50,000.

Human rights researcher Asmaa Khairy believes that although some of these punishments are less than the perpetrators of these crimes deserve, they are generally positive. The fruit of Mahmoud’s effort produced an acceptable and effective deterrence. However, Khairy points out that these provisions are common in that they are issues that have attracted public attention, and what advocates of women’s issues hope is that judicial interaction will not stop when raised in the public sphere and that all communications receive the same amount of attention and rapid reaction.

Khairy stresses that the acceptance of communications and cases in this context should not be limited to the public and major prosecution offices. All police departments and small prosecution offices must accept these cases and interact with them. Khairy agrees with his predecessors that societal efforts and movements had an effective and important role in reaching this result, especially the efforts made at the legal level, where communication with the concerned authorities, such as the Public Prosecution and the National Council for Women, resulted in an influential activity. She pointed out that these efforts were fruitful in response to the request to interact with cases of electronic harassment, as the movement began effectively to interact with these cases by providing special bodies to receive these reports.

The human rights researcher expresses her hope that the issuance of such rulings will be expanded, in greater proportions and faster, because many victims are threatened or treated badly.