Bit stalking, groping, whistling, or leering, nearly every woman in Egypt has experienced sexual harassment. A high tech mean of fighting off harassment comes in the form of a website, allowing women to report instances of sexual harassment via text message, Facebook, or Twitter. The data will then be loaded on a digital map as a hotspot, marking the areas where women should be on guard. HarassMap gives a voice to the women who can now speak openly, yet anonymously about their unfortunate experiences, and relate to each other.
But one would be missing the point of HarassMap if we just limit its essence to giving vent to women’s anger, or showing on a diagram the degree of frustration that has come upon men. Rebecca Chiao, one of the founders of HarassMap, says that the site will warn women of places where there is a high rate of harassment. It will also help the police recognize areas where more security is needed.
“Every time we get a report, we’ll send a response to the person reporting with a list of services that they can contact if they need help with legal aid or how to make a police report or find psychological help.”
Back in 2008, the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights (ECWR) released a study saying that 62 percent of Egyptian men confess to sexually harassing women, and 83 percent of Egyptian women admit being harassed.
Chiao, who is a former employee of the ECWR, recalls the time when she first started working on the harassment case:
“Before 2005, no one was really doing any extensive work on the case. I started collecting stories from women, and at that point one couldn’t even say “sexual harassment” – people didn’t know what it meant, and a lot were really offended by the word.”
There were times when the issue of sexual harassment was put to the foreground – a lot of people were involved; the media, and the government’s responses were very promising, and a set of draft laws was being discussed. But after every climax comes an inevitable fall; things cooled off, with no further movement.
But a lot has changed since then. It took a couple of years, as well as some volunteer work at the ECWR until four women activists grouped together to develop a project that possesses a sense of originality in representing the issue.
With genuine care for the issue, Rebecca Chiao, Engy Ghozlan, Sawsan Gad, and Amel Fahmy felt the urge to start working seriously on the project. A year was spent in broad-spectrum planning, to ensure that the project would make a considerable impact. As Chiao puts it, “We do not just want a map, or a website, and we definitely do not want to say, ‘’look how bad the situation is in Egypt.’’ We want real change. Women get frustrated because they cannot do anything when they are harassed; there needs to be some action to go with it, so we can create an environment that does not tolerate harassment.’’
Once upon a time, if a girl was groped in the street, the chivalrous people would shave the guy’s head, so he’d walk in shame – an act that imposes the same disgrace as wearing the scarlet letter.
But time is passé. Chiao says, “Today, harassment is considered by boys as a joke, or a game that reeks of being cool, and whoever witnesses the scene would either ignore it, or just tell the girl to be silent.’’
“Our whole idea is serving as a centralized area for cooperation and information, and we are trying to use our experience in the issue to help people make actions themselves.’’
Volunteers have offered a lot of helpful contribution, adding fresh methodologies that can help in spreading the cause. Male volunteers have helped a great deal in addressing their own sex, talking to shop owners in neighborhoods. A volunteer who teaches self defense classes has teamed up with another who is a filmmaker to make films on self defense to be put on the website. Women who cannot go to a class can easily watch it online to learn some of the basic ways to avoid harassment, and how to carry themselves in a confident manner.
Sawsan Gad, who is the project’s researcher, tracks the different ways that information is being collected in order to measure the effectiveness of HarassMap. Chiao says, “the reports are self-selective, so we cannot say that they represent the harassment rate in Egypt. But they do represent the rate of reports. Determining the impact of HarassMap will be through the traffic on the website, and the media coverage. What we expect to see is the rate of the reports increasing, which indicates that women are becoming more comfortable in expressing themselves. When it starts to decrease again, this will mean that change is finally happening.”
There have been some attempts to pin out why harassment has become so commonplace. For instance, some attribute it to sexual oppression or to the frustration resulting from economic deprivation. But this is not entirely true. Married men are supposedly not sexually deprived and yet they commit harassment; according to a report on HarassMap, a rich guy in a Mercedes harassed a girl, so again it is not a matter of social class; young boys who have not even reached puberty have joined the club too.
The founders have been getting requests from women’s organizations around the world to expand their project beyond the Egyptian borders. Hopefully by the summer, the system will be packaged, and ready to be globalized.
“We started to develop a manual, because the project is more than just the technology or the map. It is how these techniques are used to serve the case. The manual will include the best practices of the project, so that people can learn from our experience and adapt it to fit their situation.”
The first organization to approach the HarassMap founders was Ihollaback, located in New York City. Chiao says, ‘’while the technology was still being developed, Ihollaback contacted us, wanting to implement the same system. We agreed, as well as our technological partner. Although they had a better infrastructure, they let us launch first, since it is our idea. Very ethical people.”
Despite being appreciated world-wide, HarassMap had its share of bad criticism. As all the projects that deal with sociological issues, HarassMap – and their partners, the creators of 678 – received the classic clichéd comment of distorting the image of Egypt. Such a comment throws the veil of a kitschy interpretation, so that the real might cease to exist; one shall never know what we have to live with.
“We were told that we are trying to make Egypt look bad, so we realized that perhaps we need to improve our communication. We love Egypt; we do not want to leave; therefore, we are not letting harassment push us away. If I have a problem in my house, like water leaking or something, I do not hide it, or just abandon my home and leave. I fix it, and this is the way we feel about social issues.’’
Criticism is a human tendency, as Chiao says, and it is easier to give in to the problem, than try to come up with a solution. Some people said that a map will never change anything, but when the picture becomes clear to them, a lot show their support and they end up volunteering.
Still, the HarassMap team believes that they are very lucky, since they expected a lot more bad criticism.
‘’We anticipated where criticism might come from, and addressed it before it came up. Maybe people have developed a positive attitude towards working on the situation, since we got five or ten bad comments from 50,000 people visiting our website.’’
Speaking of their partners, who released their film, 678 at the same time as the website, Chiao says.
“Before I saw the film, I had met the creators, saw the trailer, and discussed the issue with them, but I still did not know what to expect. I have a long experience with the harassment case, and I have heard a lot of stories from different women. Yet, I was shocked at how the film reflected how I feel about the situation. They represent, through the script and the characters, everything that I learned in six years of working for the cause. Connecting the stories and the characters made me feel that they represent the random woman, who you cross paths with everyday. It also puts to light various points of view, from the woman who enjoys harassment at one point, to the guy who changes his perspective when he has a baby girl, and suddenly starts to feel the direct urgency of the problem. The director did two years of research, and it really shows. It is admirable that he regarded the film as a social campaign; the actors are activists now, doing outreach programs with us. It was generally a nice surprise.’’
As the HarassMap slogan says, “Either be Part of the Problem, or Part of its Solution.” 678 is part of the solution; HarassMap is part of the solution. So should you. Volunteer, report, offer suggestions, be watchful, stand up for yourself and others, and speak out.