The culture of silence that exists in many parts of the world when it comes to disclosing sexual harassment has, distressingly, created a safe haven for perpetrators who were able to avoid punishment. Victims are often left to experience feelings of anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorders alone, with little awareness on the seriousness of the crimes they had to endure.
Recently, the #MeToo movement, which began following the exposure of the widespread sexual-abuse allegations against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein in 2017, gained huge momentum across America and the world, leading to many women and men globally to come forward with their own stories of harassment.
According to researchers who presented their findings at the American Public Health Association, women who reported their experiences were found to be feeling confident, healthy, and more lively since the start of the #MeToo movement. One of the authors also commented on the significance of the movement, noting that it presents an opportunity for the public health community to “consider sexual harassment a health issue with implications for disease prevention and health promotion”.
Encouraging people to speak up and report the crime of sexual harassment is also vital in changing the society’s mentality in how it perceives it. Despite the fact that sexual harassment is punished by law in Egypt, with a sentence to a minimum of six months in prison and a fine of no less than EGP 3,000, recent incidents that have gone viral reveal how the magnitude of the problem is usually not met with equal public condemnation and reaction.
Believe women. Don’t excuse perpetrators. Don’t joke about gender-based violence.
— UN Women (@UN_Women) November 22, 2019
In Amr Warda’s case, for instance, the Egyptian Football Association (EFA) ‘s quick acceptance of Amr Warda’s “apology” and reinstating him to the national football team following the great number of women exposing his sick behavior is a tragic example of how victims’ sufferings are minimized, shunned and dismissed.
The 2018 ‘coffee harassment’ incident is also an example, where a woman posted a video of a man harassing her in public and people commented on the post calling her a “whore”, photoshopping her face onto the bodies of porn stars and other women in revealing clothing.
Similarly, in Tunisia, a Tunisian politician accused of sexual harassment gained legal immunity when he was sworn in as a new member of the national parliament. MP Zouheir Makhlouf won a seat despite the fact there was video evidence of him allegedly committing an obscene act in his car outside of a school – a salient example of how harassers get away with their vile crime.
The accusation rightfully sparked outrage and prompted thousands of Tunisian women to share their experiences of sexual harassment using the hashtag #EnaZeda, which means #MeToo. A private Facebook group and a page were set up for victims to expose instances of harassment, which reached up to 21,600 members and over 12,000 likes.
#EnaZeda Breaking the Culture of Silence
The hashtag first started on Twitter and since then gained huge traction, leading to the spontaneous birth of a movement that continues to grow every day.
“The EnaZeda movement is simply the culmination of a struggle that has been going on for years,” Najma Kousri, one of the managers of the EnaZeda page, tells Egyptian Streets, “we are tired of what we witness and experience everyday.”
Some pictures of the #EnaZeda protest in front of the parliament #Tnarp denouncing the presence of the MP accused of sexual harassment and a better implementation of the law combatting violence against women in #Tunisia pic.twitter.com/yu1Qj3vmRB
— Aswat Nissa (@AswatNissa) November 13, 2019
While the movement exposes the magnitude of the problem, it also makes it clear that silencing victims’ speech means that sexual violence will never truly be settled.
“The testimonials aim to give more visibility to women victims of sexual harassment, but we also aim to make authorities more aware of the extent of violence suffered by women in everyday life” Kousri says,”they are called to effectively enforce Law 58 on Violence Against Women so that it does not just remain as ink on paper, but put a stop to the impunity of sexual predators.”
The support and empathy the women have been receiving through the movement’s social media has undeniably given them more courage, though this is not just the sole purpose, as the public perception towards the crime itself must also be changed.
“Sexual harassment is another way in which society attempts to restrict women’s access to public space,” Kousri adds, “but today women are no longer the property of their parents or the objects of their husbands that they should submit to. They are free and independent and must therefore claim a place equal to the man in every aspect of everyday life.”
The movement is proof that legislation on its own is insufficient in tackling social issues that demand widespread cultural changes. Speaking at the Universal Periodic Review of Egypt’s human rights file, senior lawyer and women’s rights activist Nehad Aboul Komsan highlighted the importance of including follow-up mechanisms and training for judges to ensure that law is fully enforced.
The two – law enforcement and culture – have always been intertwined, and that is why it remains essential to work on both simultaneously. Following the #MeToo movement, the British justice system saw a surge in the number of complaints made to police of rape and sexual assault over the past two years.
Silence must first be recognized as an ally of the abusers. So long as women and men alike remain hesitant and reluctant to report harassment, laws will remain mere inks on a piece of paper.