Cairo 678: Egypt, a country plagued by sexual harassment

 Image Caire 678« I am going to ask you three questions. Have you been sexually assaulted ? How many times ? How did you react ? » .

          This is Seba - one of the main characters in Mohamed Diab's movie Cairo 678 - speaking. She gives courses to a group of Egyptian women who wish to react facing sexual assault. Indeed, according to a recent study published by the Egyptian center for women's rights 90 percent of Egyptian women report undergoing sexual harassment in public spaces. The writer Ghada Abdel Aal shares her experience. She says that whenever she rides the bus to Cairo she always buys two tickets to make sure she will not be assaulted by a man sitting next to her. The movie Cairo 678 addresses the issue of sexual harassment in public spaces in modern Egypt.

 The plot of the story

         Cairo 678 is an Egyptian motion-picture directed by Mohamed Diab and released in 2010. Diab claims he was inspired by the Mexican screenwriter Inarritu for this, his first movie. As in Amores perros, the fate of the three main characters -Fayza, Nelly and Seba- are intertwined in Cairo 678.

         Fayza is a married woman born into the underclass who is raising her two children. She is very poor. At one point of the movie, Fayza cannot even pay for the canteen at her children's school. This is the reason why her husband is furious when Fayza begins taking cabs instead of riding the bus on her way home.

         Fayza wants to avoid riding Bus 678 for fear of being molested. Indeed, crowded places like buses, and public spaces in general, are where sexual assaults occur in the movie. Like many others, at first Fayza dares not respond to the assaults.

         But soon she wants to put a stop to it. In reaction to this plight Fayza meets Seba. The latter helps Egyptian women to try and defend themselves against sexual assaults in public spaces. She teaches them how to resist men: “To fight back, you need to be firm: he who lays his hand on me, I'll cut it off”.

         Insolvent, Fayza has no other choice than to return to bus 678. One day, as a stranger places himself right behind her in bus 678 and starts touching her, she pricks him in the crotch with a needle. In the following days, she repeats her gesture several times creating such mayhem in the city of Cairo that a police officer is delegated to investigate the case. The crime scene: buses in Cairo. Victims: middle-aged men. All injured in the same spot.

         Enter Nelly. Nelly is a young woman engaged to a stand-up comedy actor. Nelly does not wear the veil (nor does Seba) and has her own ideas about Egyptian society. Her family is wealthy and grants her some independence. She cherishes the thought of herself becoming a stand-up comedy actress. Her story was the reason behind Mohamed Diab deciding to shoot Cairo 678 at the beginning.     

A story based on real facts

         In 2008, Mohamed Diab attended Noha Rochdi's trial. The young Egyptian had decided to file a complaint against a truck driver who had sexually harassed her in the streets of Cairo. Noha Rochdi inspired the character of Nelly. In the movie, the same situation happens to the young woman.

         On stage for a stand-up comedy Nelly tells her audience about the assault she underwent. “About a month ago, my fiancé was driving me home. As I got out of the car a small truck came up to me and the driver sexually harassed me and ran away. A crowd of people gathered instantly but they didn't do anything (laughter)”, she tells her audience with a large smile on her face. “A wise man once asked me: 'What did he steal from you?' 'Nothing. He sexually harassed me.' 'Thank God, I thought he had stolen something from you! (laughter)”.

“After a number of discussions I was told to take the man to the police. ‘I beg your pardon? 'Take him to the police'. I'm sorry. What?  I'm the one who ought to take him to the police?!

So I took him to the police. My mother, my fiancé and I were pressed in the front seat while this man was sitting all by himself, quite comfortable in the back seat (laughter)”.

         When Nelly decides to take the case to court for sexual harassment, the law enforcement officer first starts laughing and then threatens her not to file a complaint at all. He agrees to sue her molester for assault and battery but he does not want to hear about sexual harassment. “The sentence is more severe for assault and battery. Do you want to cause a scandal?” he asks. “If you need me to file a complaint for assault and battery, you can count on me. Now for the other lawsuit you'll just have to take […] Ramadan with you to the police station”.

         Sexual harassment in Egypt is so taboo that even though 90% of Egyptian women endure it, 97.7% of them are afraid to report it, according to a study by the Egyptian Center for Women's Rights. As a matter of fact, all the national media covered Noha Rochdi's trial because it was unprecedented in Egyptian legal annals. Never before had any Egyptian woman ever dared file such a complaint for sexual harassment. Mockery surrounded Noha Rochdi for a while before she finally won her lawsuit against truck driver Guibril, who was sentenced to three years in prison and fined five thousand Egyptian pounds. In Nelly's case, she was beseeched by her family and pressurized by public opinion to withdraw her complaint but she remained adamant.              

Nowadays in Egypt

         According to the actress Bushra Rozza (Fayza) in an interview given to an Australian TV channel, a shroud of silence surrounds the issue of sexual harassment.

         First, in Egypt, it is well-known that the police cannot be trusted. Yasmine Al-Baramaoui is a young woman who was assaulted by several men during a demonstration in Tahrir square in November 2012. She has since shared the memory of her nightmare on television, even though it was frowned upon by her relations. She claimed: “I did not go to the police nor to a hospital for I do not trust them”. As a matter of fact, those who inflicted “virginity tests” on a dozen women demonstrators in March 2011 indeed belonged to the Egyptian army.

         Secondly, sexual harassment is seen as dishonourable and degrading for women in Egyptian society. This is the reason why Nelly's family wants her to withdraw her complaint. This is one of the reasons for Seba's divorce. When going to a soccer game with her husband, Seba was isolated from him in the crowd. She was molested by a dozen men. It takes months, not for Seba to forget about this episode -she will never forget - but for her husband to do so. Much to Seba's dismay, for months her husband refused to see her or talk to her. Absurdly, he is the one who feels dishonoured because others have touched his wife.

         Thus, around the subject of sexual harassment there revolves a certain kind of “omerta” in Egypt. “The subject is taboo, it scares people off”, the screenwriter declared. Bushra Roza claims that this is why many Egyptian women have appreciated Mohamed Diab's movie. “It's like a majority of women wanted someone to speak for them and I believe that Cairo 678 did that”.    

         At one point in the movie, Fayza blames Seba and Nelly for not wearing the veil. “Your closet is filled with sexy outfits […]. Not to mention your hair. You live by yourself and no one owns you”, she tells Seba. “Men now believe that every woman is like you. And women like me are paying for that. When we do everything we can not to be noticed!”

         The Egyptian Oualid Hammad has made a video in which, dressed up as a woman, he experiences sexual harassment in public spaces. According to him, whether the woman is wearing a veil or not makes no difference to the stalkers. In his experience, he proves that women do not need to wear “provocative” outfits to be bothered by men. When he put on a veil for the experiment he was asked to follow a man to a hotel room. “Domination is at the heart of this issue. The more covered a woman is the more challenging it is for men”, Oualid says. 

         Sexual harassment in Egypt reached a climax on January 25, 2013. On that day twenty-five demonstrators were raped and assaulted by a herd of men. Women journalists were molested in the same way on Tahrir square. On February 2011, Lara Logan, a reporter for CBS, was assaulted for about half an hour by over two hundred men. Suddenly she was separated from her co-workers by a group of men ripping off her clothes and starting to molest her and beat her. Carole Sinz a reporter for France 3 and Sonia Dridi for France 24 both underwent the same treatment in Egypt.

         Sheik Abou Islam, a fundamentalist preacher, said on TV that the women who went on Tahrir square were “naked women, not veiled and widows […] who were expecting to be raped”.

Only a matter of frustration?

         The movie does not really provide any explanation for the phenomenon of sexual harassment in Egypt. However, in an interview for the French TV channel France 2, Mohamed Diab explained the fact that according to him sexual harassment in Egypt was due to massive sexual frustration, concomitant with poverty. “Here in Egypt few people can get married before they are thirty years old for financial reasons. You need to be able to afford an apartment which is impossible for young couples. And you can't have sex before you are married. So most Egyptians wait until they are thirty before having sexual intercourse. There is a fifteen years gap between the status of teenager and beginning of sexual activities, which is inhuman”, he says. Nevertheless, this explanation is not satisfactory, since molesters are not always under thirty years of age; they can be much older and sometimes they originate from a wealthy background. Some of these sex offenders are even already married to two or more wives, according to an article published by the newspaper Le Monde[1].

         Moreover, the men who with their hands and fingers raped the demonstrators and the journalists on Tahrir square during the uprising were not only sexually frustrated. They have been described as “herds of animals” by the young women who they assaulted. “These men don't own a thing, Ayyam Wassef - an activist - explains. They have been humiliated themselves, for instance during their military service or after being arrested. The moment they can take a little revenge, they fling themselves onto a woman, undress her and watch her undergoing terror. They take a picture of her with their mobile phone – this is the mobile as a replacement for a penis...”.

         According to the journalist Wael Abbass, one must not overlook the fact that the ultra-conservative Wahhabi movement holds sway over the minds of many Egyptians. “In the 1930's Egyptian women used to wear bathing suits on the beaches. Nowadays you do not see that anymore. Every day we resemble Saudi Arabia or Iran a little more”, he explains. Egyptian TV channels funded by the Gulf countries are numerous. They spread the teachings of fundamentalist Islam. According to the journalist Robert Sole[2], this phenomenon is due to the fact that in the 1970's, when Egyptians were encouraged to find jobs abroad, most of them went to the Gulf countries. They returned to Egypt married to veiled women and under the sway of the Wahhabi movement. The writer Alaa El-Aswany explains in his book, Chroniques de la révolution égyptienne (Actes Sud, 2011), that “Wahabism sees in women only a sexual object, temptation or a means of begetting children. What preoccupies them the most is to find a way of covering woman's body and excluding it from society as much as possible. Their aim is to restrict the evil which is said to result from the process of seduction”.

Reactions to the movie

         Mohamed Diab has had to cope with several trials directed against Cairo 678. Egypt was shocked by his movie. Firstly the screenwriter has been accused of promoting violence because of the fact that Fayza causes bloodshed while defending herself. Secondly Cairo 678 has been blamed for having degraded the image of Egypt as a country. The screenwriter won both lawsuits.

         Legally speaking, when the movie was released, there was no law that forbade sexual harassment in public spaces. One year later, according to the screenwriter, a law was voted.

         Since the uprising in January 25, 2011, the number of lawsuits for sexual harassment in public spaces has risen sharply. According to a 26 year-old Egyptian woman -Nihal Saad Zaghloul- interviewed by the TV channel Samar media, they have increased because women are no longer afraid to speak out[3]. The young woman used to live with her parents before the uprising took place, but she decided to move out after January 25. “[Before the uprising] I would have never considered leaving my parent's home unless I was getting married or dying...”, she says. When her mother tells her that no one will ever take her as a wife, she responds that she would never marry anyone who had comparable ideas. Two years after the uprising started, she became member of an association -Bassma. One of their first actions concerned sexual harassment. The members of Bassma walked through the streets of Cairo and in the subways to try and make Egyptians sensitive to the issue at stake. “If a man is about to harass a woman, we restrain him. […] If the assault has already taken place and the woman wants to file a complaint, we help her do so. […] We explain to women that they have the right to file complaints and that a woman must not be sexually assaulted whatever the clothes she may be wearing. […] Even were she to walk around naked in the streets”. She says that the former President of the Freedom and Justice Party Mohamed Morsi was animated by only one concern: women. The real concern of the Party was supposedly the high level of poverty extant, according to her. She underlines the irony this entailed by recalling a caricature she had seen, in which a sheik is depicted as shouting out: “No bikinis! No bikinis!”, while he is in fact surrounded by dozens of very poor people.

> See also Marianne Roux's recent Facebook post: