The 24-year-old actor walked the sidewalks, hidden cameras in tow, for an investigative television report, hoping the broadcast would enlighten national debate about how to combat deep-rooted day-to-day sexual harassment and abuse in this patriarchal society.
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Initiatives to counter the problem have mushroomed in recent months. Vigilante groups have started protecting women at gatherings, particularly at large protests or during national holidays when groping and harassment in crowds is at an all-time high. Activists have offered self-defense classes for women. Social network sites have been started where women can “name and shame” their harassers.
On the other side of the debate are conservative religious clerics and some government officials who blame women, saying they invite harassment and sexual abuse by mixing with men. Their comments have inflamed the discourse, particularly at a time when Egypt’s volatile and polarized politics blur social and political issues following the 2011 uprising that ousted long-time autocrat Hosni Mubarak.
As he strolled, Mr. Hammad, who wore light makeup to conceal hints of facial hair and accentuate his eyes, was hissed at and verbally abused. In one instance – when he was wearing a head veil – he was taken for a prostitute and offered up to 4,000 Egyptian pounds ($575 US) for one night. His report aired earlier this month on Awel el Kheit or “the Thread” on the private TV station ONTV.
Hammad being harassed on streets of Cairo (Photo: AP)
“I can go wherever I want, do whatever I want very simply, very easily, very casually,” Mr. Hammad said. “For a woman, it boils down to her having to focus on how she breathes while she is walking. It is not just the walk. It is not just the clothes. It is not what she says or how she looks.”
En travesti (Photo: AP)
Waleed Hammad (Photo: AP)
As a woman walking down the street, “you have to be in a constant state of alertness.”
This week, at a public meeting to make recommendations to Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi on how to address the problem, Omaima Kamel, presidential adviser on women’s affairs, said she was seeking realistic statistics on violence against women because she sensed real exaggeration of the numbers reported by some research centers. Ms. Kamel is a leading member of the Muslim Brotherhood, which emerged as the most powerful political faction in Egypt since the uprising. The group has recently criticized a United Nations document being drafted on violence against women. The Brotherhood said it was “deceitful,” clashed with Islamic principles and undermined family values. The Brotherhood said it advocated sexual freedoms for women and the right to abortion “under the guise of sexual and reproductive rights.”
Besides the daily experience of harassment on the streets of Egypt, sexual assaults at anti-government protests, where women have been groped, stripped and even raped, have risen both in number and intensity during the past year of continued unrest in Egypt.
The UN said it had reports of 25 sexual assaults on women at political rallies at Tahrir Square, the center of the uprising, in one week early this year. Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment/Assault, which patrolled the square, reported 19 incidents alone on January 25 – the second anniversary of the start of the uprising – including a case of a teenager raped with a bladed instrument.
Dressing up (Photo: AP)
Abuse at political events has emboldened activists who seek change, but the television program wanted to show how all Egyptian women live daily with the fear of being sexually harassed or abused.
The program was an online hit, shared by thousands of viewers and lauded as brave, creative, and sparked a comparison between Egypt and other Arab countries.
Lena el-Ghadban, the senior reporter on the program, "Awel el Kheit" or "the Thread" which aired last month on the private TV station ONTV, said the program sought to offer a fresh glimpse into the problem through the eyes of men.
"We want them to try to feel how women feel about sexual harassment," el-Ghadban said. "If the man sees himself as the victim of sexual harassment maybe this could get him to think, 'What am I doing?'"
Men interviewed for the program commonly blamed women for dressing or looking in ways that invited sexual harassment. At the same time, they disclosed how men bribed a coffee shop owner to spray water on the pavement so women would be prompted to lift their long conservative dresses.
They wanted to get a peek at their legs.
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