The Social is Political: The Politics of Mobilizing Bystanders Against Sexual Harassment in Egypt

By Angie Abdelmonem
Submitted to Session P4036 (Mobilizing Against Sexual Harassment in Egypt: Reconfiguring Public Space and Social Responsibility, 2015 Annual Meeting
Gender/Women's Studies;
LCD Projector with Audio Patch or Speakers;
The Egyptian Revolution presented an opportunity for youth-based initiatives to employ new strategies for transforming social perceptions and practices around street sexual harassment. Prior to the Revolution, Egyptian Feminist NGOs employed a diverse range of approaches to combatting sexual harassment, including community-based awareness programs and political and legal advocacy. Within this early activism, anti-sexual harassment entities framed the problem in divergent ways. Organizations such as El-Nadim Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence and Torture challenged the state for commissioning sexual violence in protest and detention settings. Other organizations, such as the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights (ECWR), which focused on everyday forms of street harassment, promoted the problem as social and psychological, thereby avoiding the state as harasser in its framing and analysis of the problem. Since the Revolution, a new generation of social initiatives, such as HarassMap, has employed street campaigns and technological platforms, including crowdmapping and social media, to challenge gender stereotypes and victim-blaming rhetoric, and to encourage people to speak-up against sexual harassment. This work has also largely avoided political engagement and direct challenges to state sponsored sexual violence.

There has been debate among scholars about the way in which anti-sexual harassment activism has depoliticized sexual harassment by de-linking it from the political and, instead, promoting it as a social problem that requires community-based solutions. Prior to the Revolution, ECWR was criticized for failing to contextualize sexual harassment within the structural system of gender inequality and for reproducing neocolonial images of unruly Arab men needing reform. This paper blurs the boundaries of social and political engagement, arguing that the cultural work of the new initiatives represents a challenge to the political order. Drawing on theories of social movements and cultural politics, this paper explores the approach to social change employed by HarassMap that seeks to mobilize bystanders and build a critical mass around new social norms. By undermining patriarchal norms that blame victims and enjoining the public to intervene against sexual harassment, this paper contends that HarassMap is creating a new vision of social responsibility. When a tipping point is reached, HarassMap believes popular public outcry will then force more effective political and legal reform from the state to protect women in public. Here, such reform results only when there is enough public will for change.