Egypt Criminalizes Sexual Harassment

Landmark law punishes sexual predators for the first time, in one of the worst countries in the world for women's rights.

Tova Dvorin ,

Egyptian women: now protected? (illustration)
Egyptian women: now protected? (illustration)

Egypt took a major step forward for women's rights on Friday, by criminalizing sexual harassment for the first time.

Outgoing president Adly Mansour issued a decree making the crime punishable by a minimum six-month jail term and fines between 3,000-5,000 Egyptian pounds ($419-714), with increased penalties for employers.

The decree also carries a number of conditions, according to local news site Ahram Online. Repeat offenders would see the sentence doubled; harassers who stalk their victims would receive at least one year in jail and a fine of between 5,000-10,000 Egyptian pounds ($619-1398); and fines of up to 20,000 to 50,000 pounds ($2797-6992) and five years in jail for harassers who use their position of authority to solicit victims, or in cases with multiple assailants.  

Presidential spokesman Ehab Badawi said the decree also defines a sexual harasser for the first time, as a person seeking to achieve "an interest of a sexual nature." 

The issue of sexual harassment in Egypt has become front and center in the arena of women's rights over the past several years, after foreign journalists were sexually assaulted in the 2011 Tahrir Square protests, causing local and worldwide outrage. 

Last year, Thomson-Reuters research found that Egypt has the worst track record in the Arab world for violence against women. 

An additional study by the United Nations, which interviewed hundreds of women across Egypt, revealed that more than 99% of women there had experienced some form of sexual harassment, ranging from minor incidents to rape. 

Will the law be enforced?

Campaigners welcomed the law Friday, according to the Guardian - but some have warned that the law may yet go unheeded by police. 

"The biggest issue is still the cultural one: society doesn't see it as a crime," Eba'a El-Tamimi, a spokesperson for anti-harassment group HarassMap, told the British news outlet.

"Police often tend to sympathize with harassers or be harassers themselves. Even when someone manages to get to the police station to report harassment, she will still encounter resistance from police officers, who will try to deter her from going through with filing the police report," said El-Tamimi.

In March, sexual harassment in Egypt made international headlines after a Cairo University student was shown being harassed on a viral video. Law school dean Gabriel Nassar responded to the controversy by claiming that the student's clothing caused the harassment, sparking an immense and immediate backlash in both social and mainstream media. 

The case pushed the issue back into prominence; activists ultimately hope the government will eventually introduce a broader law that methodically criminalizes all forms of sexual crime.

But El-Tamimi remains cautious over the process. 

"I don't think sexual harassment will be properly part of the government agenda unless society changes," the activist lamented. "The core issue is that society does not see it as a crime."