Heba Elsayed is a doctoral researcher at the London School of Economics. Heba’s thesis, comparing three different classes in Cairo, examines the construction of young Egyptians’ cosmopolitan identities at the juxtaposition of a socially divided urban world. In her guest post for RE.FRAMING ACTIVISM, Heba examines HarassMap, a new initiative in Egypt.
Egyptians may have won their revolution against Mubarak and the Muslim Brotherhood, but according to Olivia Ward1, they have most definitely lost the sexual revolution. Indeed, a damning UN report conducted in 2013 puts the horrifying facts into numbers, suggesting that Ward’s analysis may be a sad yet accurate description of events: 99.3% of Egyptian women admit to have been sexually harassed, while 85% claim that no bystanders stopped to intervene. In an ironic twist of fate, Tahrir square that has come to represent a global reference as a hub of freedom and political struggle, has also become a haven for sexual harassment predators. As political unrest erupted in Cairo over the past week, culminating in President Morsi being ousted by the military, almost 180 incidents of harassment have been reported, and have included everything from groping to indecent exposure to inappropriate verbal remarks to notorious gang-rapes2. Unfortunately, the problem of sexual harassment in Egypt is one that spans out far beyond Tahrir Square and goes back in history much further than the political turbulence of the last two years. Despite the severity of the situation, most Egyptians tend to meet stories of sexual harassment with a silent indifference. After all, it has almost become an expected part of the daily experiences of Egyptian women, which is perhaps best solved when “ignored”. This is where HarassMap come in: realising that the trend of sexual harassment in Egypt has got entirely out of hand, they are using new tools, in the form of social and digital media, to attempt to deal with an old, deep-rooted problem. Their main aim is to use technology alongside community activism to change the culture of silence that has long surrounded sexual harassment in Egypt, and the social acceptability that comes with it.
HarassMap was launched in 2010 as the first independent initiative to work on sexual harassment in Egypt. Through crowdsourcing, HarassMap is a volunteer-based initiative that uses SMS and online technology, in parallel to on-the-ground action, with an ambitious end-goal of establishing a zero-policy attitude towards harassment in Egypt’s public spaces. With a mobile phone penetration rate of almost 100% 3 across Egypt, HarassMap are tapping into an ever-increasing annual growth-rate of online and mobile technology in the country. Indeed, online access in Egypt has improved greatly within a relatively short space of time – most notably over the last six years. It stands today at about 38 million4 Egyptian internet users, which, for a developing country, is a substantial number. Furthermore, it was the expansion of internet mobile services through the launching of 3G mobile technology around 2007, which gave most segments of Egyptian society access to the online world.By making use of this far-reaching technological base, the HarassMap service provides a unique collective platform through which any Egyptian woman can potentially report incidents of sexual harassment using an anonymous text message or simple call. Data provided by victims is then gathered and presented on a virtual map of Egypt, which can be accessed through the HarassMap website. Each time an incident is reported from a particular location in Egypt, it is flagged on the map as a red circle. Each circle contains the number of incidents that have taken place in that area, and as reports keep coming in, this number is constantly updated reflecting the changing frequency of incidents. A birds-eye view of the map allows one to instantly identify areas in Egypt that are particularly rife with sexual harassment, while by clicking on the circles, it is possible to read the details of the numerous individual reports made available.
Importantly, HarassMap do not operate in any haphazard or arbitrary way. With a strong research team on board, comprised of a senior academic expert and younger scholars who have substantially researched sexual harassment in Egypt, all their work is underpinned by deep-insight and established knowledge of the issue. According to HarassMap’s founder Rebecca Chiao, one of their primary objectives is to debunk the myth that there are predictable trends associated with sexual harassment. Any Egyptian woman, regardless of age and social-class background, veiled or unveiled is a potential victim, says Chiao, while male predators can be anyone from university professors to doctors harassing women in their clinics, to poor street-sellers. In this light, the biggest challenge facing HarassMap is not technological coverage, but is successfully using technology to be able to change common, highly misguided and frighteningly passive attitudes towards harassment, which have resulted in the issue taking a very low profile until now. Most importantly, I believe, HarassMap proves that activism can only take on any broader social consequence when the mediated and non-mediated worlds come together as forces for change. HarassMap is not solely a virtual platform for collecting data or connecting sexually harassed women, but works through on-the-ground community action – using a large network of volunteers (half of whom are men) and mobilizing them to undertake grassroots activism. Indeed, armed with a copy of the map and an abundance of stories provided by victims, community action volunteers visit areas identified as ‘harassment hotspots’ once a month. They attempt to challenge deep-seated stereotypes and to try and encourage ordinary citizens, including shopkeepers, taxi-drivers and policemen, to take a more proactive approach towards any incidents of harassment they may witness. When people agree to take part in the fight against harassment, particularly by intervening if they witness any incidents, they are given a ‘harassment-free zone’ sticker to place in their shop, kiosk, or building. In this way, HarassMap are able to ensure that alongside a growing media campaign, they maintain a tangible and visible public presence that extends far beyond the computer screen.
Three years after being launched, HarassMap are enjoying tremendous success and are expanding regionally and internationally, and have already made a presence in Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, Bangladesh, Pakistan and India, while projects in progress include Libya, Turkey, South Africa, Cambodia and South America. Although they have so far won three international awards − including the World Summit Youth Award (November 2011) – their ambitions don’t stop there. HarrasMap are currently trying to raise $200,000 to establish a nation-wide media campaign in Egypt, allowing them to transfer their message through television, radio, print media and graffiti art, thus hopefully using a diversity of media platforms to reach into every urban and rural corner of Egypt. With the fundraising deadline looming fast, the campaign is in full-swing, attempting to gain support and, most importantly, generous donations from all over the world. Some people say that in a country that has been experiencing over two years of revolutionary instability, desperately trying to lay the foundations of a democratic future, sexual harassment does not really top the list of priorities. Noora Flinkman, Project Manager at HarassMap, contests this idea saying: “sexual harassment is a symptom of deeper problems in the (Egyptian) society, and all these have to be acknowledged, understood, and addressed to ensure that Egypt becomes a better place to live. Sexual harassment also influences all parts and members of society – so if we want to improve education, health, safety etc., we have to make it possible for everyone to participate in all these spheres without harassment, threats, or assault”.
For more information on HarassMap, to donate towards their media campaign, or to simply leave a message of support, please visit the HarassMap Indigogo Website.
1 Source: The Star World. ‘HarassMap Battles Sexual Harassment in Egypt and Beyond’. 18 February 2013. Available at:
2 Statistics gathered by OpAntiSH (Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment) and are available on their twitter account.
3&4 Source: www.tra.gov.eg