Our day with HarassMap in Cairo

On 31st March, myself (Bryony) and Julia were lucky enough to be invited to a workshop all about Diversity and tactics in street harassment activism, held in Cairo, Egypt!   The session was coordinated by Elisa Wynne-Hughes (Cardiff University), Karen Desborough and Jutta Weldes (University of Bristol) and funded by the Independent Social Research Foundation.

The high ceilings of our beautiful seminar room at AUC (American University in Cairo) Tahrir Square campus echoed laughter and discussion for a full day of tactics and strategies sharing, considering questions such as ‘who is included and excluded by different tactical approaches to combatting street harassment?’ Both groups were overwhelmed by the similarities of the struggles and challenges we face, in spite of our massively different urban and cultural contexts.

Both groups began by sharing our tactics and approaches with a short presentation. We were really interested in the clear structure of HarassMap’s work, as we look to move from sharing work between a small pool of volunteers into a more collective working model with clearer guidelines on who’s doing what. HarassMap asked us about how we use our map, and we both shared tales of the difficulties of getting both the British and Egyptian media to cover the issue of street harassment in a full, frank and appropriate way that is not sensationalist – the struggle continues on that one!

Julia and I then facilitated an exercise about the myths that come up around harassment, asking who these myths protect, and who they silence. We learnt that HarassMap do on the ground outreach through their Community Mobilization programme, and even have a manual full of the excuses that people will give for harassment, so that their volunteers can have a quick come back to each and every one! We were hugely impressed by this work, particularly given the additional difficulties faced by HarassMap in ensuring that their work is not seen as a political demonstration and thus investigated by the Government. We were very keen to put some of their direct community action strategies into action back in London. They had lots of myths to share:

After lunch, we moved on to discussing who our audiences are. Both Julia and I and the HarassMap team noted that while our intended audience would always be inclusive i.e. anyone who experiences sexual assault and harassment or cares about it, the actual audience of our work is sometimes limited to those already engaged with urban justice issues and community security issues, or broader gender and public space issues, who are often those who are less likely to be facing additional marginalisations. We discussed what we could do address this. I personally learnt a lot from our very interesting conversation about how the extreme marginalisation of Egypt’s LGBT community (see this article for context) means that a strategy is adopted of resisting visibility for safety reasons, which in turn means that lumping ‘women and LGBT people’ together as per our own messaging would have very different connotations and consequences here in Cairo. I thought back to how one of the first things our AirBnB host asked us was if Julia and I were a couple, as she said it was illegal in Egypt. While there are actually there are no direct laws prohibiting same sex acts, laws around Public Order and “Public Morality” are frequently used to arrest LGBT people.

Likewise, we discussed how the dominance of some North American social justice and feminist terms in online circles are not equally used and useful in all contexts, e.g. in Cairo, a city of 11 million where 99.6% are ethnically Egyptian, the use of the term women of colour to denote an ethnic minority is not as helpful. HarassMap’s Communications Director Alia discussed how important it is to always include issues of race and religion when we discuss harassment, explaining that they would use an intersectional approach to address for example, that the type of street harassment that an Ethiopian maid might experience on the street in Cairo would likely reference her skin colour and status.

We spoke at length in the closing session about how both our projects attempt to navigate advocating for community change whilst interacting or not interacting with the police and the state in our respective countries in very different ways. The day taught us so much about the value and importance of finding and sharing common ground with other activists doing this work in other cities, to learn from each other, reflect on our tactics, successes and shortcomings, and share ideas. Above all, this day was a magical reminder of the power of solidarity across genders, cultures and cities in the fight against not only street harassment but all forms of violence.

We ended our day with a meal at the delicious Taboula in the Garden City area of Cairo, a stone’s throw from Tahrir Square, and wished our new friends farewell after an amazing day.

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