January 04, 2021
CAIRO — In June 2019, Eman was a senior engineering student at Ain Shams University, in Cairo. While working on her senior project with a teaching assistant, the TA standing in front of her took out his penis.
Her journey from that moment to the conclusion of the university's investigation into the incident this past summer — more than a year later — sheds light on several problematic aspects of anti-harassment policies in educational institutions.
"It was the first time I experienced this, and I didn't know what to do," Eman told Mada Masr. "I talked to a professor I trusted, and she told me that I must file a complaint. My professor went and talked to the department chair whose response was that it'll be my word against his."
Eman asked around to see if other students had suffered similar transgressions, and found a colleague who had the same experience with the same TA. The two students filed a complaint in July 2019.
Her department heard the details of her complaint once, and Legal Affairs heard her a second time. But, according to Eman, it was only after she posted about the incident on her Facebook page in November 2019 that everyone called her to sit down with them and began to take it seriously. The day after the post was published, she and the other student who had filed a complaint sat down for a prolonged inquiry the presence of the university's vice president and the head of the anti-harassment and violence against women unit.
"This swiftness wasn't for our sake, nor the sake of the other students, but because of the scandal," Eman said.
The following day, the Engineering Faculty issued a statement saying that the department and Legal Affairs had heard the complaint, and that the university's anti-harassment and violence against women unit had opened a separate investigation. It also said that the accused staff member had been suspended pending the conclusion of the investigation.
I was treated horribly during the inquiry.
Anti-harassment units such as the one tasked to lead the inquiry into Eman's complaint have been rolled out by the National Council for Women at Ain Shams and 24 other universities around the country over the past five years. And yet, no one contacted Eman about the investigation until May 2020 — nearly six months after the statement and almost a year after the incident allegedly took place — when she and the other student who filed a complaint were called in for an inquiry on campus.
The investigating committee was composed of a law school professor, the university's vice president, and a third person who did not identify himself. As far as Eman could tell, the committee did not seem to include a representative of the anti-harassment unit.
"I was treated horribly during the inquiry," she said. "They asked me about exactly what had happened, and I told them that it's all written in the complaint. I told them that this violates a girl's modesty and they said it was me who was bringing shame upon them all. I was so embarrassed that I cried, and they kept on saying things like: "What you're saying is illogical. I'm a man and I wouldn't be thinking of you-know-what while I'm focusing on work.""
In July 2020, Eman found out by chance that the investigation had found the TA innocent and that he had been allowed to remain in his job as normal without her being informed. Outraged, Eman sent a digital complaint to the National Council for Women, but she says that "they didn't see the message."
"The shame mechanism"
Recent campaigns around sexual violence raise questions about how these incidents are dealt with inside institutions, especially those professing to hold progressive stances toward the issue, such as certain universities, civil society institutions and political parties.
For Hind Ahmed Zaki, an academic specializing in political science and women's rights, the main driver behind many investigations into sexual violence complaints is what she calls "the shame mechanism," which creates a state of disarray, thereby compelling us to look for justice mechanisms. Zaki adds that the act of testifying to having suffered an assault isn't just about securing justice, but can sometimes be about aiding recovery, establishing a sense of dignity, sending a message that these incidents must stop, or that there's a need for cultural and social change must occur in relations between the two genders.
In July, human rights researcher Esraa Serag Eldin published a testimony on her personal Facebook page recounting a sexual assault perpetrated by Mohamed Nagy, former research director at the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE). Serag Eldin said that he had physically assaulted her five years earlier, and had threatened and intimidated her afterward to remain silent.
On July 5, she began collecting testimonies from other women that Nagy had assaulted. Having got wind of the fact that Serag Eldin had collected several testimonies and was preparing to publish them and preempting his exposure, Nagy published what he called an "apology" on his Facebook page before deleting his account, according to Serag Eldin's post. In that apology, Nagy confessed to having sexually assaulted some women.
The act of testifying to having suffered an assault isn't just about securing justice, but can sometimes be about aiding recovery.
On July 9, AFTE announced that Nagy had been dismissed after confessing on Facebook to having committed violations and several sexual crimes against various women. The organization also promised to conduct an investigation into "the extent to which Nagy used his work at ATFE to commit the sexual violations and crimes."
AFTE then announced it would form a fact-finding committee for any accusations of sexual violations or administrative transgressions within AFTE or by its current and former employees. The organization has adopted a temporary policy to combat sexual harassment and discrimination borrowed from the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, another civil society organization, until it finalizes its own policies.
Denying that AFTE's plans to put a sexual harassment policy in place were in response to the pressure created by the public testimonies, AFTE Executive Director Mohamed Abdel Salam, who took office at the beginning of this year, said the organization had formed a committee to draft a policy before Serag Eldin published her testimony.
While it builds its own policy, which is still subject to internal discussion and is being carried out with the help of an expert on gender issues, any complaints raised will be dealt with by the policy created by EIPR. The committee is currently looking into previous and current complaints, and its recommendations will be binding to management and will inform the policy drafting, according to Abdel Salam.
Abdel Salam admits there is a problem in ATFE's working environment that goes back to a prevailing culture of strong personal relationships within the association. This led to a false belief that there was no need to set governing rules and policies for work relations.
One of the older complaints the committee looked into involved Laila (not her real name), who started working at AFTE in late 2017 and has since resigned. In early 2018 during an annual gathering for the ATFE team outside of Cairo, she witnessed a female colleague being harassed by the colleague's direct supervisor. She and the colleague filed a complaint with management soon after the incident, Laila told Mada Masr. The association did not appear to have any internal regulations to guide the process.
"They told me that they have regulations, but that they didn't know where they were," Laila said.
A slap on the wrist
Following the complaint, other incidents involving the same supervisor as well as other AFTE employees were raised with the executive director at the time. The executive director summoned and facilitated a meeting between Laila, her colleague who was harassed, and the person who had harassed Laila's colleague. The supervisor "didn't say anything other than "I have kids and I'm married,"" Laila said. ""What you're doing will ruin my future.""
Afterward, the director said that punitive measures were taken against the accused, but Laila told Mada Masr that the result was unsatisfactory. "We asked for the findings of the investigation, since he had turned out to be guilty, and we were told only that we had butchered him and his reputation. We asked for an anti-harassment policy, and nothing has happened so far. He is still at the association until now. The punishment was a deduction from his salary."
On top of this, Laila adds that the executive director was abusive towards the complainant both during and after the investigation. He made a threatening statement like, "I can make it impossible for you to work anywhere. I can make it so you won't be able to sleep."
We asked for an anti-harassment policy, and nothing has happened so far.
During investigations, the then executive director told a witness, "It's not the security agencies that are going to shut down the association, but the feminists," Laila told Mada Masr.
The complainant resigned in the end, after being accused of "screaming" at the executive director. She made recourse to members of the association's board of trustees and its advisory committee regarding her mistreatment. They suggested that the executive director apologize to her and took no further measures. The executive director did not apologize.
Laila was called in for inquiry in August by the new investigations committee regarding the complaint she'd filed in 2018. Even though Laila has no reservations about the composition of the committee that was formed, she did not feel that the association was serious about this step, and believes that it only came about when they felt they were in freefall because of public opinion and pressure from social media.
"Turning a blind eye"
The same year that Laila and her colleague lodged their initial complaint, public accusations of sexual assault were made against prominent members of another leftist entity without a harassment policy. A woman accused lawyer Mahmoud Belal, a member of Bread and Freedom Party, of sexual assault. An accusation of harassment was also made against another founding member of the party, lawyer and former presidential candidate Khaled Ali. Both members resigned from the party and Ali made a public apology to the complainant.
Still under establishment, the party is ostensibly based on a platform of the values of the Egyptian revolution, democracy, social justice and the eradication of discrimination. Party Deputy Elham Eidarous tells Mada Masr that this case was a real earthquake within the democratic movement, and it forced everyone to sit together to define sexual violence and mechanisms for justice.
The party was not asked by the accusers to intervene in the complaints, but once members learned of it, they felt they had a responsibility to intervene, according to Eidarous. They brought in "people from the feminist field to set the standards for the investigation (an independent committee of experts)." But the committee and the party did not involve the complainant in the investigation.
Eidarous holds the party responsible for being slow to confront the problem, and believes that because the party were extremely private about what they were thinking and planning to do, there was an impression that "that we were turning a blind eye."
"By the time we talked, the victim's allies had lost our trust," she says. "People treated us like we only conducted an investigation when we were cornered. We also had an issue with the statement issued by the party because it sent mixed messages and did not explain the issue with the investigation or its findings, because it did not reach unequivocal results."
We live under a regime that is not serious about the rule of law.
Eidarous adds: "During and after the investigation, many people resigned from the party. Some thought the party had succumbed to political blackmail, while others did not find the investigation impartial."
The investigation found Ali innocent, and that Belal had committed sexual misconduct. The party announced its anti-harassment policy in March 2020. Prior to that, an anti-harassment policy had been proposed in 2014 following a mass harassment incident at Cairo University but had not materialized.
Workplaces, the media, civil society, educational institutions and political parties do not exist in a vacuum, Zaki says. They are subject to the state's regulations and laws even if the state restricts them.
Lawyer Azza Soliman says: "Anyone who says they're putting together a policy, I'll support them, and I'll assume good faith until proven otherwise. A practical application would still be the test." She explains that the absence of anti-harassment and non-discrimination policies in human rights organizations is tied to the state of rule of law in general. We live under a regime that is not serious about the rule of law, and this is reflected in private institutions, she says.
"If you have laws and a constitution that support women and are against discrimination or a policy without preparing people to combat the issue on the ground, nothing will be implemented," she says. "There is a societal culture that leads to discrimination and glorifies the absence of justice and the rule of law."
Pressure and blackmail
But how can there be justice in contexts where structural problems in understanding violence against women, even within the groups who identify as progressive, intersect with problems of state repression against those same groups?
According to Eidarous, victims in political parties and human rights organizations are pressured not to resort to the state because it is not neutral toward those entities. "She could feel as though she is confessing to something, or as though she's reporting her group. The state could use this against the victim because they'll treat those victims as "not our girls.""
The American University in Cairo — Photo: The American University in Cairo
Aside from the state's extreme pressure and blackmail, there's also pressure from her colleagues not to report under the pretense of comradery, opposition and not destroying the human rights community. The girls also fear moral and political judgment against them, or being labeled as security agents."
"As a result of the issue, and, without blaming the girl who complained as it's not her fault, there's a case to dissolve and ban the Bread and Freedom Party that was filed two years ago, even though the incident did not happen at the party office and the accused has resigned," Eidarous adds. "Wouldn't that scare other colleagues off from resorting to the state? The solution isn't for the girls to remain quiet, but for workplaces to be safer and more resolved in providing justice to women within institutions."
Zaki asserts that, given state repression, anything can be politicized. "Can we guarantee that cases against opposition figures would not be politicized? No. Can this be used to persecute them? Yes. But do we stop accusing them? No."
Eidarous says that accusations against "survivors of hurting the Egyptian left have now led to a conviction among younger generations that the question of women is not important on the left, and that it's a hotbed for harassment. This has hurt the reputation of the progressive movement, and it will take a lot to fix this."
The solution isn't for the girls to remain quiet, but for workplaces to be safer.
The online campaign that sought to expose repeated counts of assault perpetrated by Ahmed Bassam Zaki, who is currently on trial for sexually assaulting three minors, as well as attempted coercion to perform sexual acts against all three as well as another woman, as well as harassment and several other charges, triggered months-long discussions and testimonials about sexual violence around the country.
Many of the accusations against Zaki came from fellow students while he was enrolled at the American University of Cairo. Supporters of the campaign have called out AUC for never having taken action against Zaki, despite its adoption of an anti-harassment policy and reports that complaints against Zaki had been brought to the administration's attention while he was still enrolled at the university.
After the social media outcry raised by Assault Police, an Instagram account that initially focused on gathering evidence and testimonies of sexual violence against Zaki, AUC issued a brief statement on July 2: "Ahmed Bassam Zaki is not a current student at The American University in Cairo. He left the University in 2018. AUC has a zero-tolerance policy for sexual harassment and is committed to upholding a safe environment for all members of the community."
The statement does not deny nor confirm whether the university had received complaints about Zaki, and links to the university's anti-harassment and non-discrimination policy.
In response to questions from Mada Masr, AUC's Assistant Director of Media Relations Dena Rashed said that the university has always had an anti-harassment and non-discrimination policy and that the current policy, adopted in 2019, is stricter than previous ones.
In response to a question about what the university did about the testimonies against Ahmed Bassam Zaki, Rashed said the university has a confidential electronic system for filing complaints and that she cannot disclose anything about previous investigations. She added that all AUC employees took training to combat harassment, and the university hosted several discussions with guests such as the National Council for Women President Maya Morsy to raise awareness.
Complaints against Zaki had been made to the administrations of at least two of the universities he had attended. According to Assault Police, his crimes took place while he was enrolled in the American International School (2015–2016), the American University in Cairo (2016–2018), and most recently the EU Business School in Barcelona, Spain (2018), until his expulsion on July 3.
In a post, the account's admin explained that she learned of the accusations against Zaki from a student at the American University of Cairo, who had posted on the university's professor evaluation platform to say that Zaki had harassed her and a friend. More than 50 complaints followed, but Zaki, after threatening suicide because of them, transferred to a university in Spain and no investigation was initiated.
In Hind Ahmed Zaki's view, institutions — whether they're in the state's favor or not — must have regulations for violence against women, but they are not a substitute for state policies. "If a murder was to happen, the institution would be subject to the Criminal Procedure Code," she says, explaining that in spite of amendments to the Penal Code, which can come about under public pressure, Egypt is still in need of a comprehensive law to combat sexual violence that could serve as a benchmark for all institutions.
EIPR's current gender and human rights officer Lobna Darwish says that there is no such thing as a correct or incorrect policy. It is a process of slow, collective learning and revision that is subject to experimentation. It requires a consensus among employees, not just celebrating the fact that it exists.
The danger lies in sham policies. "If we have the best policy in the world, but men are dominant and there's no diversity, what would be the point? Our ability to confront discrimination and sexual violence will not only be actualized by policies, but on a wider scale that includes work relations and equality. How are these places fair for women? Are they diverse? Do they have women in various positions? Do women have equal pay?"
Egypt is still in need of a comprehensive law to combat sexual violence.
Without pinpointing a specific institution, Darwish adds that all institutions who revert only to "crisis management" fail. Real change can only come when there is a real commitment to guaranteeing that mistakes are not repeated, and when the process is fair and satisfying to the complainant and earns their trust.
There is a collective responsibility to provide all options to women who have been subjected to sexual violence, Darwish says. These options could be state, institutional or internet tools by way of exposing whether anonymously or not.
"If I have a policy, it's still not my right to tell women not to resort to another path," says Darwish. "We've seen the price women pay when they decide to talk – not only the shaming, but the psychological effect. Writing and exposing is not a temporary solution until we form policies, but rather one option among several. And they have the right to use all options available."
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The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.
October 19, 2021
Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.
Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."
Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.
Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.
Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.
Oppressive home situations
As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.
Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.
Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.
Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.
"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."
Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."
Lack of spaces
Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.
"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.
The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out
Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.
Lockdowns force coming out
According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.
"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.
Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.
Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.
"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.
The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling
In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.
"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."
Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.
Medical care is dismal
Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.
Isolation triggered my depression
"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.
What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.
During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.
As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."
Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.
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