Anti-sexual harassment activism in Egypt:: transnationalism and the cultural politics of community mobilization

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Sexual harassment has emerged as a widespread problem facing women in public space in Egypt. Activism to combat sexual harassment began in 2005. However, just prior to and in the

Sexual harassment has emerged as a widespread problem facing women in public space in Egypt. Activism to combat sexual harassment began in 2005. However, just prior to and in the years following the January 25, 2011 Egyptian Revolution, which witnessed an increase in the collective sexual harassment, assault and rape of women, this activism has increased. Subsequently, scholarly attention to sexual harassment and public sexual violence has also expanded. Much of the attention in scholarly analyses has been directed toward politically motivated sexual violence, focused on understanding the state commissioning of sexual violence against female protestors to drive them from protest participation. There is an emerging critique of activist approaches that seems to ignore the politicalized nature of sexual harassment to focus instead on “cultural” targets. The early work of the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights (ECWR) and current work of HarassMap have been criticized for depoliticizing sexual harassment by failing to include an analysis of state-commissioned sexual violence in their work. Similarly, both have been accused of expanding the scope of the security state by calling for increased policing of public space to protect women from “culturally-bad” men.

With data collected through one year of participant observation with HarassMap, interviews with activists from eleven anti-sexual harassment initiatives and advocacy NGOs, and community-level surveys with non-activist individuals, this dissertation argues that “cultural” work undertaken through the community-based approaches by entities like ECWR and HarassMap is, in fact, an inherently political process, in which political engagement represents both an attempt to change political culture and state practice and a negotiative process involving changing patriarchal gender norms that underpin sexual harassment at a society-wide level. New conceptualizations of sexual harassment promoted by anti-sexual harassment initiatives and NGOs in Egypt frame it as a form of violence against women, and attempt to make sexual harassment an offense that may be criminalized. Yet, this dissertation contends there is a tension between activist and widespread public understandings of sexual harassment, predicated on the incomplete framing of sexual harassment as a form of violence.