The app that wants to make Egypt’s streets safer for women

A mob of Egyptian youth grope a woman in Cairo
A mob of Egyptian youth grope a woman in Cairo
Image: AP Photo/Ahmed Abd El Latif, El Shorouk
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This Ramadan, spliced into the TV soap operas that are popular during the fasting month, Egyptians will also be seeing some confrontational ads about sexual harassment. The ads launched in early June by Harassmap, a local Egyptian organization, is part of a campaign that began last month called “Harasser = Criminal.

The public service announcements, each about a minute long, show how women are harassed in public spaces. One clip, which shows a man touching a woman on a bus, has gathered nearly 100,000 views to date.

Harrassmap, which started in 2010 with dedicated volunteers, plans to use the public-service ads, radio spots and social media to “create a zero-tolerance attitude for sexual harassment.”

The stark campaign name signals a shift in the organization’s tactics from simply raising awareness about sexual harassment to pushing Egyptians to actively report to the authorities incidents of sexual harassment more frequently. The aim is to take advantage of the new law which takes on this pernicious social phenomenon that has not abated in recent years. In 2013, a poll rated Egypt as having the worst women’s rights of all 22 Arab countries.

Using crowdsourcing techniques, Harassmap encourages women to anonymously report incidents of sexual harassment in Egypt’s public spaces by texting a hotline, through their social media accounts or on the site.

The wrenching reports are then collated and visualized on a heatmap powered by an open source platform called Ushahidi. The map allows users to see the full scale of reports and how they are categorised by suburbs or by types of harassment.

Screen shot of Egypt app, Harassmap
Screen shot of Egypt app, Harassmap

“When we started the map four years ago the aim was to graphically illustrate where sexual harassment occurs” Reem Wael, deputy director of Harassmap explained to Quartz. Waal said that the online reports, which are anonymous, give more specific details than those collected by researchers in the field. Anonymity was crucial, she said, because users “might be still afraid to blow the whistle on this social taboo or fear repercussions if their identity is revealed.”

Sexual harassment law

A law criminalizing sexual harassment came into effect last year around the same time Abdel Fattah El Sisi became president. Offenders can spend up to six months in jail or pay a fine of up to 3,000 Egyptian pounds ($400).

Harassmap turned to independent Egyptian director Ahmed Abdalla to produce the slick series of ads punctuated by catchy graphics and a sobering message that harassment has legal consequences. It has been supported by philanthropists & organisations such as Goethe Institute and UN Women. Wael said that feedback from the public so far is mixed about whether the state should intervene or the public, ideally she said she would like to see both societal and state involvement.

Stop it, now!
Stop it, now!
Image: AP Photo/Amr Nabil

Not everybody thinks the app is a good idea, however. Paul Amar, a professor at University of California, Santa Barbara who has conducted research on cultures of policing and sexual violence in Cairo, says the law has a double purpose.

“Police in Egypt have been using harassment laws to round up and torture hundreds of boys, just to clear them from public space,” he says. Harrassmap’s heat map contributes to this, he argues; the heat map as a crime map “has a history associated with the ‘social cleansing’ operations of Rudolph Giuliani’s Quality of Life campaign in New York City, or with the counterinsurgency operations in contemporary Colombia.”

“Sexual harassment is the nexus of all crises of public space today in Egypt. It is very real. But criminalization and police collaboration are not the most effective ways to deal with it” he added.

Amar notes that social problems need community responses aimed at creating safe public spaces with which Harassmap and a host of feminist organizations in Cairo have been engaged.

Dialogue and conversation and giving women access to safe spaces to come together, to produce women-centred businesses and women-cultivated publics, and access to housing, education and physiological and mental health – that’s the way to go” Amar suggested.

Indeed, it’s often police who are the harassers. A report released last month about sexual violence by security forces in Egypt found that “increased police impunity has allowed for a surge in abuses generally and sexual violence in particular”.

Wael, though, maintains though that the bold visuals and strong messages of the campaign are needed at a time when sexual harassment is still a hotly debated topic. The map, she argues, ”spawns discussions about sexual harassment in a safe virtual space.”