CAIRO - It is 6 p.m. at Shohada metro station in Cairo. On the cramped platform, a group of women use their shopping bags like shields to protect themselves from wandering hands.
In Egypt, rush hour is conducive to sexual harassment, and even assault - a real plague. With a deafening screech, the train hurtles out of the tunnel, overpowering the loud hubbub of bystanders. The doors of the women-only carriage open and a man gets off. "You dog!" a woman shouts, pushing the intruder away from her. Once her headscarf is readjusted, she disappears, sheepishly, into the crowd of passengers crammed onto the platform.
Suddenly, four youths wearing yellow tabards rush toward the aggressor, grabbing him by the arm. Written across their waistcoats are the Arabic words: "Instead of harassing her, protect her!" That is Basma's slogan, a new volunteer group determined to wipe out the "virus" poisoning the everyday life of Egyptian women.
"It's time to take the bull by the horns," Nihal Saad Zaghloul says, one of the founders of Basma. This young IT technician has lost count of the number of times she has been molested or had rude comments made about her, even when she is wearing a headscarf that completely covers her hair, and her oversized, scruffy jeans. "Contrary to popular belief, girls wearing veils are just as likely to be pestered as those without them," she explains.
Blame the victim
"It's sad to say, but the majority of harassed women don't dare to complain about it, as they think no-one will help them. When a victim goes to the authorities, they blame her rather than the aggressor. They say she shouldn’t dress that way, wear make-up, or go out alone after-dark... What's worse, some police officers abuse the complainants."
And so the Basma project was born. Launched in the middle of Eid celebrations in August, it now sends mini-brigades of civilians into the busiest metro stations. "We advertised for volunteers on Facebook, which helped, and there are now 20 of us," says the young activist, on the third day of operations. Photos are already inundating the blogosphere.
A police officer joins the small group, as they try to persuade him to fine the aggressor: 15 Egyptian pounds (the equivalent of $2.50) for having been in the women's section of the train. "If the victim hadn't fled, we would have encouraged her to press charges. But, 15 pounds, that's a start..." sighs one of the young volunteers.
Some onlookers stop, dumbfounded. "Well done!" beams one Egyptian woman. Diana, 22-years-old, has had numerous run-ins on the metro. "One day, when I was on my way to work, some stranger was masturbating right in-front of me. Another time, a man rubbed himself against me in the corridor." The outcome: she is too scared to go to work and will not go out without being accompanied by her husband or a friend.
A new law against sexual harassment
Under pressure from feminist organizations, a law was created to penalize sexual harassment. However, it has still not come into effect after the dissolution of parliament last June. Nihal Saad Zaghloul admits: "Our work is only a temporary solution whilst we wait for a better one. It has, however, helped those women who put up with abuse without saying a word."
According to a study released in 2008 by the Egyptian Centre of Women's Rights, 83 percent of women surveyed said that they had been sexually harassed, of which 91 percent took place in public places such as in the metro or on the bus. According to Mohamed El Khatib, from the HarassMap organization - an NGO that has been making a census of sexual harassment and assault cases in Egypt since 2010 - a typical profile of an attacker does not exist.
"According to some people, poverty is the cause of all this, in a country steeped in tradition where sexual relations are banned before marriage and where men do not have the means to marry young. Others think it is because young men are torn between the view of veiled women in the streets and the plethora of raunchy video clips being broadcast on satellite TV. Actually, according to our research, the men who abuse women are both rich and poor, religious and secular, married and single, young and old."
The Egyptian director, Mohamed Diab in his excellent film “Cairo 678”, tackles these numerous paradoxes with verve. He paints a portrait of three victims, inspired by the truestory of Noha Rushdi, the first Egyptian woman to have filed for a sexual assault complaint in 2008. At the time, her attacker was sentenced to three years in prison, as well as a fine of 5,000 Egyptian pounds (around $820).
In Zamalek, a posh neighborhood of Cairo situated on an island in the heart of the Nile, Ahmed Kadri started teaching self-defense classes several months ago. A criminology graduate and a fan of martial arts, he would rather women use these methods to protect themselves from potential aggressors and to flee as quickly as possible instead of using knives, pepper spray, Tasers and other weapons that are being increasingly used by Egyptian women. "There's now a real demand for these types of techniques. Women are starting to realize that if they are in control, they are less likely to be hassled."
A new war on women
In Egypt, foreigners also feel vulnerable, especially since Mubarak lost power, when many women were victims of gang rapes during the revolution. There have been dozens of similar – and horrifying - incidents since the assault on the CBS journalist Lara Logan, in February 2011, by between 200 to 300 men. On June 8, Egyptian women protesting against sexual harassment were violently attacked.
Each time, it is the same scenario: a pack of hounds choose their "prey" amid the crowd, throw themselves at her, tear her clothes off... Disgusted by this "barbaric and brutish practice," activist Nevine Ebeid, a member of the New Women Foundation, believes there are certain political powers intent on "breaking women's determination and discouraging them from protesting."
"I think these attacks are organized, either by the members of the old regime or by conservative groups who don't want Egyptian women to become emancipated. However, there is no evidence and therefore it's difficult to accuse anyone," she says.
It is not a new phenomenon. In 2006, a gang of men attacked several women in the center of the capital during Eid celebrations and the affair was quickly covered up by the Mubarak regime.
"But the revolution did give us a voice," Norhan Alaan, 21, admits. This sculptor and student at Cairo's Faculty of Fine Arts, is one of many Egyptian women who are now coming out to speak about sexual abuse.
This summer, the art gallery Darb 1718 offered her the possibility to exhibit her artwork next to half a dozen other artists, on the theme of "Enough!" Her installation is inspired by the testimonies of 40 victims, speaking under anonymity. The extracts of their tragic episodes are projected, black on white, on a screen next to a life-size mannequin completely covered in pins. "To my great surprise, many men are coming to the exhibit. For a lot of them, it's their first time that they have been confronted with real accounts as women can rarely speak about these things, even with their friends of family. If it can awaken people's consciences, then it's already a mini-success."