In ‘the third place’, I want everything but sex

"The third place" is a sociological term that refers to informal public spaces. It is the cafe where you go to smoke shisha, complain about your manager and ask your friends for new job leads. It is the public park where you attend a free concert, sit next to a man with his seven children who make fun of underground music, while looking perplexed at your girlish ponytail. It is the microbus your cleaning lady has to take everyday to work to make enough money for her children’s school tuition. And it is any of the Tahrir “Squares” where you protested hand in hand with Her for equality and social justice.

The third place welcomes its guests and sometimes dissolves socioeconomic differences among them. It is where they build their safety networks for emotional support and look for new economic opportunities. They exercise their social, economic and political rights, which crystallize the meaning of citizenship. Unsolicited sex invitations or acts are not included in those rights.

Girls and women in Egypt are not able to enjoy the full benefits of the third place. Catcalls, groping and various other forms of verbal and physical sexual harassment make public space unfriendly and even unsafe for many females in Egypt. According to the government's statistics agency CAPMAS, there are 33 million females in Egypt in their productive, reproductive, and/or primary educational phase (5-60 years old). This is a good 40 percent of the population, representing potential dwellers or users of public places.

The violence of harassment is most abusive when the victim (girls and women) internalizes the blame. “I must have invited this kind of behavior,” many women think. This often leads them to adjust their dress, their walking routes, their go-out times, or cancel their plans altogether. Slowly, as they continue to be chased out of the third place, 40 percent of the Egyptian population becomes disenfranchised, unable to practice their own citizenship.

In the past, we had safer streets, more chivalrous men and fewer harassers. What went wrong? Transition. As societies transition from rural to urban culture, people replace patriarchy-inspired values of chivalry with egalitarian values of citizenship and collective human rights; the right to personal safety is one of them. During the transition, new types of crime, such as sexual harassment, often emerge among people who have not yet internalized the new value system.

The attack on 2011's International Women’s Day rally in Tahrir, to choose one example, may give us insight into the psychology of harassers. First, a female-majority crowd occupying that much public space is very foreign to Egyptian eyes and public sentiment. Essentially, there is no activity in Egypt that mobilizes women in the streets in a manner similar to the routine gathering of men for Friday prayer, for example. Second, the protest defied the social power hierarchy dominated by men — calling for women’s rights referenced an essential loss of patriarchal advantage to those men in the streets.

And why didn’t such attacks on female protestors happen during the first 18 golden days of the Egyptian revolution? Women were welcome in Tahrir then because they were needed. Tahrir’s geography was the raison d’être of the revolution, and the numbers mobilized there (regardless of gender, age or class) defined its borders. Additionally, it seems that this powerful historical moment that inaugurated the revolution made men realize — at least temporarily — the correlation between their individual responsibility and freedom as a greater cause. The embedded lesson was “you disenfranchise women, you get disenfranchised. So you just don’t harass them, you just don’t." This resulted in Egyptian women being recognized as equals for once, without the usual gendered misconceptions dictating what women cannot do, what women are not designed for, or how harmful they are on the psychosexual health of men should they exist in public space.

Following the first 18 days in Tahrir, this self-imposed ban on street harassment was lifted as life in Egypt returned to normalcy.  Nevertheless, women continued to take to the streets in the recurring waves of protests, as demonstrators, medical doctors in the various makeshift clinics, reporters on the violence, etc. Their votes have also dominated the ballot boxes. In Egypt, harassment has made it difficult for girls and women to occupy public places, but has failed to completely stop them — and this has become especially true after the 25 January revolution. The revolution has also given extra urgency to initiatives to stop street harassment.

In 2010, Cairenes began an initiative to map out sexual harassment hotspots in their city through HarassMap (which I co-founded). HarrassMap allows women and girls to immediately report incidents of sexual harassment via text messages or social media (such as Twitter). The data is then digitally compiled and mapped out on the web to flag harassment hotspots. The method of this data collection is referred to as crowdsourcing, where crowds (the women who report on harassment) provide information that is digitally compiled and mapped to solve a problem, in this case street harassment. The idea is that this crowdsourced data be used as the "narrative" that defines crime prevention strategies by various stakeholders: government, civil society and media.

HarassMap indicates that 37 percent of the crowdsourced harassment reports could have been completely avoided had there been a positive police element on the ground (sometimes a policeman had been present, but either reacted indifferently or actually engaged in harassment). Therefore, there is an urgent need to reform police training to include, among other things, gender awareness. It is no wonder that the need to correct the mandates and behavior of Egypt's law enforcement bodies is what sparked the revolution in the first place.

But until this daunting task of reforming the police force is commenced, civic engagement has been providing platforms to counter street harassment. Volunteers on outreach campaigns have been talking to shop-owners and street bystanders on how they can help women by acting positively when witnessing harassment. It is important, however, to intensify the efforts to reach out to people on the granular ground level.

Besides reforming law enforcement and outreach campaigns, the third front in combating harassment is the media. The media has an immense power in shaping people’s perceptions and gendered sensibilities. In the 1990s, for example, a five-second-television scene, “Medhat awy, Medhat geddan, Medhat khales” coined Medhat as the name of an effeminate man, and consequently exposed many young boys called Medhat to bullying at schools. This is an example of the power of media, and if we can use this power to combat gendered stereotypes, rather than produce them, we can easily turn the nation against street harassment. We need to call on artists, especially the revolutionaries among them, to write their next film, song or play on the topic.

Finally, March 18-24 is the International Anti-Street Harassment week, and it is an occasion to raise public awareness on the need to combat this problem. And this is where you should come to rescue, dear reader. Please talk to people on the street, and post a status update to let everyone know that sexual harassment is a crime that needs to stop now.

Sawsan Gad is a co-founder and lead GIS analyst at HarassMap, a volunteer initiative that works to end social tolerance for sexual harassment using face-to-face community outreach, in addition to social media and a mobile phone based reporting and referral system for victims of sexual harassment.

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