by Basmala Elbeblawy
I was 16-years-old the first time I was sexually harassed. Honestly, at the time, I had no clue what sexual harassment actually looked like. Since Egypt’s 2011 uprising, I started hearing more about sexual harassment in Egyptian media simply because more women started to speak up. Before that, I had just heard that it was something that happens often during huge festivals and national holidays where the streets are more crowded.
I was never a very dependent child. I had always been the type to handle everything independently. My family knew this about me. Doing everything on my own meant riding public transportation in Egypt on a daily basis to run my errands, visit friends, or go to school. That’s where I first faced sexual harassment, in a public place where a child is supposed to feel safe.
The first time it happened, I was sitting on the city bus when I started to feel something slowly touching my leg and it was not my school bag. I looked like a child going for a lesson after school. In fact, I was a child. It was a man in his 30’s touching me. I was terrified, shocked, shaking, and helpless. In that moment, I knew that he should not be touching me.
Despite being a terrified and shocked 16-year-old girl at the time, I managed to gather myself and all of my powers that still remained in that moment to report the 30-something year-old man. I told the bus driver to stop immediately because someone needs to go jail. I remember nothing except screaming with my broken voice, grabbing on to the man, cursing him, and hitting him senseless until his clothes were torn. But, like almost every incident of sexual harassment in Egypt, onlookers helped him get away. Even other women told me that I should calm down.
“You are a girl, you cannot say such words,” they said. They ignored what he did to me, and focused instead on my reaction.
To understand sexual harassment, means to understand bodily integrity. Bodily integrity is the sacredness of the physical body. It is the importance of self-ownership, personal autonomy, and self-determination of human beings over their own bodies. This is a foreign concept in Egypt. That’s because bodily autonomy is rarely taught in schools. This often allows for very unhealthy boundaries in society. After all, this is why sexual harassment is an epidemic in the country. About 99 percent of women in Egypt have experienced sexual harassment, according to a study conducted by the United Nations.
The second time I faced sexual harassment, I was 17-years-old. This time it was two military police conscripts who started cat-calling at me and my friends. This time I was braver. I knew that technically they couldn’t hurt me at their workplace, so I reported them to their commander who had to beg me for hours not to report the incident to the police. Once again, the incident was downplayed and a woman was asked to relinquish her rights.
This happened to me again when I was 18. This time, a man in his 30’s sat next to me and started to touch my breasts. I was terrified to call out. I collected everything in my bag, closed it, held it closely to my body to make sure that I don’t get robbed while exposing him. As usual, I screamed at the top of my lungs. He was confused because I was silent for almost 10 minutes throughout the abuse. That’s because I was shocked in that moment. That’s how trauma works. Once again, onlooking Egyptian men helped him flee.
With time, I grew up. I learned that I may not always be able to take my harasser to the police station and that people won’t help me either. But, I made sure to teach every cat-caller and harasser a lesson in hopes that it would make him ashamed of himself. Through all of this, I never initiated a step to grab someone and take him to the police station because my family never knew that I had faced sexual harassment. Therefore, I learnt to be brave on my own.