How often do Egyptian women hear offensive lines on the street and get called out by sexual harassers?
A lot! Whenever someone brings up sexual harassment, they usually rule out catcalling as they see that they are not that big of a deal. Well, Zeina Amr Al Dessoky, a freshman who decided to change this and start a conversation, founded a page on Instagram called Catcalls of Cairo. We interviewed her and she told us all about the bold, awareness-raising page.
Tell us about yourself and what you study.
I was a medical student at Qasr El Ainy last year, but I dropped out and now I will join the AUC. Right now, I am on a gap year.
Tell us about catcalls of Cairo, what inspired you to start it and what is the cause that it serves. It all started when I saw the “Catcalls of NYC” account, and when I searched for a Cairo version of it I couldn’t find one, so I had to start it. I thought it will help victims speak up because catcalling is seen as a normal thing in our society, not a traumatic experience that needs to be spoken about.
How different is the catcalls of Cairo from the NYC version?
The format is different because in the NYC account, they chalk the stories in the places where the harassment happened, as they are a bigger platform with a bigger team. I manage the page on my own, so I am not able to do this, plus it might even be illegal. Another thing is that they have many collaborations with big organizations, which is something I am trying to work on at the time being. Also, I try to speak and raise awareness about other feminist topics through the account so it is not only limited to street harassment.
What is the hardest thing when it comes to managing a page like Catcalls of Cairo?
The stories are sometimes very intense for me to read. Also, I have to provide emotional support, because sometimes the person telling the story might be feeling traumatized, and I may be the only person they ever spoke to about this. I sometimes feel confused as to what the best response for them is.
How does society treat or respond to such a page?
A lot of people tell me that I make Egypt’s reputation look bad, but I literally post actual stories. I get real, intense stories, and people only want to stay in the positive bubble; they don’t want to hear about any negativity, so they clash. I get where they are coming from, but it is not the solution. I also get responses like “there are also good men,” and I get that, but the other type also exists. And if I and other women are afraid to walk the streets, then there is a problem.
Do you sometimes refrain from posting certain stories?
I try to stay relevant to the page’s posts. Sometimes I get really intense stories like rape and sexual assault in schools and others. At times I do post, but I try not to drift from the original purpose of the page. However, I don’t change the language or edit the words that I receive, because I believe that there should not be any censorship on this. I occasionally edit out some swear words, and I still get comments that I should not be posting this, even from my parents.
Are your parents supportive of this account?
They are very supportive.
Do you have plans to expand to multiple accounts?
I want to expand. I want to take more solid steps in general, but I feel it might be too early.
What would you say to any woman who gets catcalled in the streets and never speaks about it? I would say speak and talk to the men in your life and explain to them how traumatic the experience is. I would say to speak and talk back at the harasser but I can’t risk anyone’s safety.