This is the account of 26-year-old video journalist Aya, who faced several instances of harassment during her training period at a reputable production house in Egypt. Aya asked not to be identified by her full name, for fear of retaliation.
At the beginning, Aya was not able to determine if the technician was trying to be friendly or if he had other intentions. “During that time, I was a fresh graduate. I had [no] experience in how people deal with each other at work.”
She continued: “This was annoying me; I was not able to speak up [out of] fear of not being able to continue the three-month internship. The only thing I was able to do was to keep [my] distance every time I had to talk to him.” Aya was not the only female subjected to sexual harassment at her workplace who kept silent to avoid termination.
In general, sexual harassment is an unwanted behavior with sexual undertones that can occur when words or actions impinge upon one’s body absent consent, infringe one’s privacy, or make one feel uncomfortable, threatened, insecure, or abused. Although sexual harassment is common in the streets with behaviors such as catcalling or whistling or worse, sexual harassment in the workplace in Egypt is increasingly being brought to light.
The New Woman Foundation (NWF), an NGO based in Cairo and headed by feminist Mona Ezzat, conducted a study in 2016 of 60 women, aged 20 to 50, living in eight Egyptian governorates: Cairo, Alexandria, Baheira, Gharbia, Port Said, Suez, Assiut, and Ismailia.
The study showed that the majority of the interviewed women had been subjected to sexual harassment in government and private workplaces, either through sexually suggestive staring or leering or touching. Only a few of the women denied having been subjected to sexual harassment in the workplace, saying that they had not even witnessed such incidents with respect to others.
According to the study, women reported that whenever they tried to object, harassers would often say that they did not intend “anything bad,” or they chalked it up to a “misunderstanding.” This is why many of the women said it was difficult for them to report, much less prove, the incidents.
Instances of sexual harassment in the workplace in Egypt occur in the private sector at higher rates than in the public sector. Factories were reported to have the most instances of sexual harassment, when compared to any other workplace, according to the NWF.
Egyptian journalist Mai Elshamy reported that she was harassed by one of the supervisors at her workplace, the privately-owned newspaper Youm7. In a Facebook post on her account, she said that her supervisor had physically and verbally harassed her inside the newsroom and that she had filed a lawsuit. The accused supervisor, Dandrawy Elhawaray, has denied the charges, however, and said that he is willing to testify to disprove the accusations.
On social media platforms, hundreds expressed solidarity with Elshamy, encouraging her stance through hashtags, while others supported Elhawaray, vouching for his character. Though the investigation is ongoing, Elshamy has been barred from entering the paper until it is over.
However, the legal experts interviewed for this article are critical of the penalties for crimes involving sexual harassment in Egypt. They believe that there should be a specific mechanism for their enforcement.
In 2014, for the first time, penalties for sexual harassment were added to the penal code, imposing at least six months imprisonment and a fine of between EGP 3,000 and EGP 5,000 (between $167 and $278) for anyone convicted of committing verbal or nonverbal sexual harassment or abuse in public or private areas.
However, in 2016, Egypt’s House of Representatives amended these provisions, increasing the prison terms for convicted harassers from six months to one year, and raising the maximum fine from EGP 5,000 to EGP 10,000 ($557).
For harassment in the workplace or by family members, the law also provided that a convicted harasser would be jailed for no fewer than two years and no more than five years and pay a fine between EGP 20,000 ($1,114) and EGP 50,000 ($2,786).
In a phone interview, Ezzat, the director of the “Women and Work” program at the NWF, said that while the laws punishing harassment do not need to be fully amended to cover all definitions of harassment, she thinks that there should be an article in the labor law that criminalizes and punishes sexual harassment in the workplace.
“I can say that the articles present in the penal code are fine, but are not well implemented,” Ezzat explained. She added that there is a suggestion to include an article in the labor law that would require dealing with co-workers accused of harassment in accordance with the penal code.
Ezzat said also that a person accused of harassment at work should not be allowed to continue working in the office until an investigation is completed.
Moreover, lawyer Essam El Eslamboly, who works in the Court of Cassation (also known as the appellate court) told Inside Arabia, that the penal code provides for fair punishment for sexual harassment inside and outside workplace.
“Unfortunately, police stations are not dealing seriously with harassment complaints; therefore you can find that many rights are lost,” noted El Eslamboly.
Another lawyer, Ahmed Abdel Naby, believes that the law requires some amendments, such as introducing penalties for all of the types of sexual harassment crimes. He suggested that Egypt should “think about dedicating a whole chapter of the penal [code] to determining the penalties for different kinds of harassment and come up with a plan to implement the law.”
When asked why there is an issue with the enforcement of the law, Naby said that sometimes it is difficult to prove harassment. Not only are the complaints not being seriously considered, but, in many cases, the survivors cannot help the police catch or identify the harasser.
Alia Soliman, who works as a contact officer at HarassMap, an online platform seeking to end harassment, said that her organization has recently started an initiative that aids in preventing sexual harassment in the workplace.
“We have launched a specialized training program for male and female Uber drivers to raise their awareness of what acts could be deemed to be sexual harassment and how they could avoid committing such acts.”
“We have launched a specialized training program for male and female Uber drivers to raise their awareness of what acts could be deemed to be sexual harassment and how they could avoid committing such acts,” Soliman said, “as well as training them on how they can recognize that they are facing harassment themselves.”
She concluded that there should be policies in every company’s legal department regarding punishments for harassment and policies on how to deal with harassment cases, should they arise.
In other countries, there is legislation that not only criminalizes sexual harassment in the workplace, but provides compensation for harassment survivors. However, in Egypt, there are already laws punishing harassers, but the Egyptian government has yet to draft explicit rules to determine how companies must deal with sexual harassment at the workplace while preserving the rights of survivors. Egypt also lacks comprehensive education surrounding the topic—from male perceptions to women’s awareness of different forms of protecting themselves.
A Thomson Reuters survey ranked Cairo as “the most dangerous megacity for women,” saying that the treatment of women in the Egyptian capital has worsened since the 2011 Arab Uprisings. While some advances in Egypt’s policy on sexual harassment show promise, they can be small comfort for the abuses women face in Egypt every day, including violence and discrimination at home, in the workplace, or on their daily commute. Though no one denies that the new penal measures are a step forward, it will be a long time before they catch up to the realities of women in Egypt.