Arab Women Just Say No to Sexual Harassment

From Syria to Yemen, digital tools are being used to track real-world nastiness.

Women in Cairo. (Photo: Joseph Hill/Flickr)

Oct 24, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Vince Beiser has reported from more than two dozen countries for Wired, Harper’s, The Atlantic, Rolling Stone, and others. In 2014 he won the Media for Liberty Award.

In the United States, a debate rages about how to protect women from sexual assault on college campuses. Meanwhile, in much of the Arab world, growing numbers of women are fighting back against sexual harassment in the streets.

Fed up with getting catcalled and leered at every day on their way to work, a group of Egyptian women has launched HarassMap, an online map that lets women anonymously report, via text, email, Twitter, or Facebook, exactly where they got harassed. They can also add a description of the experience and upload pictures or video. The goal is to raise awareness about the extent of harassment and change the popular perception that it’s acceptable. As of publication, the map includes more than 1,000 reports in Cairo alone.

“We thought of the map as a tool and a platform where people would talk about this issue safely and anonymously,” HarassMap spokesperson Noora Flinkman recently told Humanosphere. “They don’t have to feel ashamed to use words that they wouldn’t feel OK to say out loud in the company of people.”

The idea is catching on fast. Similar efforts, some of them actively supported by HarassMap, have sprung up in Palestine, Yemen, India, and Syria (where not even women soldiers are immune from sexism, apparently).

Cairo women put sexual harassment on the map with Harrassmap. (Photo: Courtesy Harrassmap.org)

Just how big a problem is sexual harassment in the Arab world? Well, according to two recent studies, almost every woman in Egypt has at some point been catcalled, groped, or otherwise sexually harassed or assaulted. Even during the popular uprising against dictator Hosni Mubarak in 2011, many women reported being raped in the crowds of Tahrir Square, including CBS News correspondent Lara Logan.

Before you get to feeling all smug about our cultural superiority, keep in mind that sexual harassment is a major problem in the U.S. too, be it in farm fields or in restaurants. Playboy magazine, of all sources, recently scored a viral hit with a flow chart explaining when it’s OK to catcall a woman. Answer: never, unless she’s literally a cat or if “you know her and have both consensually agreed to shout sexually suggestive comments to each other in public.”

Objectifiers—Egyptian or otherwise—please take note.