One woman seeks to reclaim public space for all women in Egypt

Nihal Saad Zaghloul is an Egyptian WLUML networker.  Here, she talks to Christopher Reeve of Community Times.

Nihal Saad Zaghloul is not afraid to get her hands dirty. Literally. After meeting with Community Times in a Zamalek coffee shop, Zaghloul was making a U-turn, when a young rookie driver, unfamiliar with Cairo’s traffic conventions, drove into her path. Zaghloul slammed her car’s brakes, but contact was inevitable.  Luckily, there was no major damage, except for a flat tire.  A policeman arrived at the scene, and all parties agreed that the tire simply needed to be changed.  The rookie driver, a young man, did not know how to change a tire. 

“I’ll do it,” Zaghloul offered.  The police officer objected:  what would people think if they saw a woman changing a tire as men looked on?     

I do not have time for these gender roles, Zaghloul thought to herself. 

“Give me the tire,” she told the other driver. 

Zaghloul changed the tire, exchanged formalities with the other driver and his girlfriend, and left the scene to wash her hands as several men looked on.

The incident, while minor, says a lot about Zaghloul, who is used to both attracting attention and defying conventions.  Soft-spoken and subtly ironic, the politically conscious twenty-eight-year-old from Nasr City is cofounder of Imprint, a movement that is working to make Egypt’s public spaces safe for women.

The movement was created as a reaction to the surge in Egypt’s widespread sexual harassment.  As reports of harassment circulate, some accounts of mass public rapes have been so shocking that one has to take breaks from reading them just to process the sheer violence used by the perpetrators.  The world’s Egypt watchers, already focused on the country for political reasons, have recently begun watching how Egyptian society deals with public violence against its women.  

Although the issue  of harassment is not new, a newly awakened Egyptian public has stopped waiting for government salvation since the revolution against Egypt’s three-decades-long ruler Hosni Mubarak.  Citizens now take action; thus Imprint, and groups like it.  Like many others, Zaghloul is fighting for the rights of women in this new environment.  

Zaghloul and her two sisters were raised by a single mother. 

“She raised us to be strong and independent,” Zaghloul says.  “To not depend on anyone for anything.”  

She says that her mother would save what little money she could for her daughters’ education.  “We were raised to understand that education is the most important thing.”

Zaghloul earned a bachelor’s degree in engineering from the Arab League’s Arab Academy for Science, Technology, and Maritime Transport.  It was at Arab Academy that Zaghloul began to really hone her leadership capacity.  For a year and a half, she was leader of the student union, an experience that provided her with skills she applies today.  More recently, Zaghloul took part in Stanford University’s AMENDS program, which brings together youth leaders from the United States and the Middle East and North Africa to learn from each other.  While in California, Zaghloul spoke about her work with Imprint in a TED-type presentation.  In the video, which is available on YouTube, Zaghloul shares a pivotal moment that she experienced one day after she and two colleagues founded Imprint.  

On June 2, 2012, Zaghloul and a friend went to Tahrir Square on the occasion of Mubarak’s conviction.  As had occurred on numerous occasions at the iconic square, a mob of men attacked them.  In the melee, Zaghloul and her friend were separated.  Someone grabbed Zaghloul and hid her behind a kiosk, but her friend suffered a different fate, and was raped.  Zaghloul’s ability to escape major harm that night “was pure luck,” she says over coffee.  But what her friend suffered “became one of my worst nightmares ever,” Zaghloul tells a crowd in the AMENDS video.

Since founding Imprint, the group has organized patrols in Cairo’s metro stations and at Talaat Harb Square during four Eid holidays.  Over the past few years, the holidays have become infamous for making women feel unwelcome on the streets, as groups of rowdy boys and young men roam about harassing the general public.  Imprint’s team of dozens of men and women speak with pedestrians about sexual harassment against women and girls.  They also stop harassment when it happens, escorting perpetrators to the police.  Zaghloul says that just the presence of the team with their yellow, orange, and blue vests, reduces the prevalence of sexual harassment, and makes would-be assailants think twice before acting.  Zaghloul observes that most harassers she comes across are between the ages of ten and fifteen.  

“This blows out the theory of sexual frustration,” says Saad Zaghloul, naming one of a number of oft-cited reasons for Egypt’s high level of sexual harassment.  Another camp of reasoning places the blame on victims themselves. 

A UN Women’s study, published in April 2013, documents that 99.3% of female respondents throughout Egypt expressed having experienced some form of sexual harassment.  Over ninety percent of the study’s female respondents blamed the appearance, manner of walking, and demeanor of victims.  At least ninety percent of males included in the study blamed clothing, demeanor, makeup, manner of walking and talking, and “non-compliance with conventional customs and traditions” on the part of victims. 

Victim blaming, says Zaghloul, is one reason why many women do not speak out after experiencing sexual harassment. 

While there are laws to protect women, an entire cultural shift is needed to combat widespread acceptance of harassment, and to ensure that the law is enforced in harassment cases. Today, Imprint goes beyond foot patrols in its effort to educate young Egyptians.  Group members have implemented awareness campaigns at Cairo University and the American University in Cairo to engage with youth about sexual harassment.  Imprint will be working with UN Women’s ‘Safe Cities’ program in Imbaba, Izbit Al-Haganah, and Manshiyet Nasr, all low-income Cairo neighborhoods, to meet the goal of educating people to ultimately make public spaces safe for women.  In the immediate future are plans to go beyond Cairo, to places like Banha, Minya, and Suez.  Further down the road, the group plans to engage with youngsters in Egyptian primary schools.

But the question remains unanswered:  if sexual harassment is not about sexual frustration or women wearing tight clothes and walking provocatively, why do men and boys sexually harass women and girls in Egypt?

“When you demean somebody, you control them,” Zaghloul explains.  “It is about control.  It is a power thing.”  And this desire to control boils down to oppression, argues Saad Zaghloul.  A man is oppressed by some aspect of society, so he attempts to gain some measure of power over another.  Women, who are generally physically weaker, make easy targets. 

If sexual harassment is not curbed, Egypt may see an increase in other types of public aggression. Zaghloul talks about cases where a few men, perceived as weak because they are short or not projecting enough bravado, are harassed on the street. “Violence does not stop,” she says. 

Zaghloul notes that there was a significant decrease in instances of harassment at Talaat Harb during the two Eid holidays in 2013, compared to the year before.  But she does not attribute the decrease to Imprint’s work. “Women have stopped going out in Eid,” Zaghloul says.  Unless they are in big groups or with male friends or relatives, women seem to be staying home to avoid the hassle.

Working in downtown Cairo to stop sexual harassment can be dangerous work.  When Imprint members approach pedestrians for a chat about sexual harassment, they use a team of both male and female volunteers.  This ensures that male and female perspectives can be shared.  But getting the team together is difficult, as the parents of would-be female participants are fearful for their daughters’ safety.  The fact that sexual harassment is a taboo subject in Egyptian society does not help either.  Zaghloul’s own mother has expressed concern over her daughter’s work.

“She is very proud of what I do,” Zaghloul says about her mother, who is a national program coordinator at the United Nations.  “But she also fears we are getting ourselves in danger.” 

Zaghloul and her mother talk about the dangers and develop ways to mitigate them.  “We have this relationship where she knows I always do what I want,” Zaghloul says.  “She does not try to stop me, but she gives me advice.  We plan and strategize together.”

Indeed, Zaghloul’s mother, Nagwa Ismail, is proud of her daughter’s achievements.  On an album showcasing Imprint’s work on Facebook, Ismail wrote, “Nihal, my daughter I am so proud of you.”  The message concludes with a single word of encouragement:  “COURAGE.”

While Zaghloul learned to change a tire from her grandfather, when it comes to tackling sexual harassment and making public spaces safe for women, Zaghloul credits her mother.  Early this year, Zaghloul responded to her mother’s public expression of support with a Facebook post of her own.  “Thank you for teaching me how to fly.  I love you so much.”

With long-term plans like lobbying government ministries to become involved in combating sexual harassment, and transforming the Ministry of Youth to empower young Egyptians, Zaghloul has a quite a journey ahead.  

Originally published by Community Times here.