Understanding Taharush El-Ginsy: Changing Conceptions of Sexual Harassment in Egypt

By Angie Abdelmonem
Submitted to Session P3821 (Online Space for Collective Dissent: Reconstructing Gender Discourses in Egypt, 2014 Annual Meeting
Cultural Studies;
LCD Projector without Audio;
Sexual harassment (taharush el-ginsy) has been a recognized problem facing women in Egyptian public space for at least two decades. However, it is only within the last decade that civil society and grassroots movements have initiated public campaigns to end this problem. Prior to these public campaigns, discussions of taharush el-ginsy primarily existed within online Arabic discussion boards. Early conversations within these shadow publics on taharush el-ginsy focused on child molestation, fears of molestation leading to male homosexuality, solutions to heal homosexuality through intensified religious faith, with some attention to workplace sexual harassment targeting women. Public sexual harassment targeting women, to this point, had generally been understood as a form of “flirtation” (muaksa). A shift in sexual harassment discourse began in 2005 with the launch of an unofficial Safe Streets campaign organized by the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights (ECWR). In this campaign, informed by transnational discourses of women’s rights, taharush el-ginsy was strategically chosen to convey greater violence targeting women in public with the goal of effecting social change.

This paper explores online discussion boards and social media sites, such as Egyptian Talks (muhawarat masriyun) and Twitter, as both a space and an instrument for negotiating and refashioning an alternative, gendered conceptualization of taharush el-ginsy focused specifically on women. Analyzing messages, blogs, posts and tweets from Arabic discussion boards and social media sites from the beginning of the Arabic internet to today (2000-2013), this paper underscores how online worlds provided safe spaces for people to discuss and debate highly charged topics that were taboo in public discourse until the Egyptian revolution. It examines the strategic decisions made by Egyptian NGOs around the use of taharush el-ginsy to dispel notions of sexual harassment as harmless and welcome flirtation. Furthermore, data collected through participant observation, interviews, and surveys with organizations such as HarassMap, Anti-Sexual Harassment, the founders of ECWR Safe Streets campaign, and others, this paper emphasizes how online forums allow activist organizations to 1) shape new notions of women’s right to control their bodies and be safe from unwanted propositions or attacks in the public sphere, 2) define new forms of civic engagement through the mobilization of volunteer communities and members of the public to attend campaigns and events, and 3) provide real time reports on sexual harassment incidences for crisis response.