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Fight against sexual harassment in Egypt bearing fruit

Eight years after the first woman in Egypt won a conviction against a man for sexual harassment, activists and lawyers see progress in transforming attitudes and more harassers being jailed.

In 2008, Noha Elostaz broke social taboos by disclosing details of an assault as she pushed for her harasser's conviction.

Sherif Gebreel had reached out from his vehicle, groped her, hit the accelerator and dragged her along. As she fell, she saw him laughing.

Her defiance, a landmark three-year sentence for Gebreel and years of campaigning by volunteers have now shifted the tide from the days when authorities and the public treated harassment as trivial, isolated incidents usually blamed on women.

"Now I hear about so many cases, girls who take men to police stations, and people now have a sense of familiarity with this act," Elostaz, 34, told AFP.

"In daily life, things have improved. I can personally feel it on the street."

According to a 2013 UN study, 99.3 percent of Egyptian woman have experienced at least one form of harassment, and 82.6 percent said they did not feel safe in the street.

Public debate over the problem intensified in the aftermath of the January 2011 uprising against former president Hosni Mubarak.

The protests centred around Cairo's Tahrir Square, where constant media coverage also highlighted sexual attacks and helped to uproot public denial of the phenomenon.

"Of course there is progress," said Mozn Hassan, the executive director of Nazra for Feminist Studies, a leading women's rights group.

Sisi's 'message'

Hassan said her organisation has won more than 50 sexual harassment cases, mostly involving prison terms, since authorities directly criminalised sexual harassment in June 2014, days before President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's inauguration.

One of the worst of these attacks happened in June 2014, during celebrations marking Sisi's inauguration.

A widely shared video showed the bloodied naked body of a woman as a mob pulled and pushed her to the ground and policemen tried to rescue her.

Shortly afterwards, Sisi visited her in hospital bearing flowers, apologised and vowed to crack down on harassment.

The following month, seven men were sentenced to life and two to 20 years over assaults around Tahrir.

For Sisi to visit the victim "was a message to the state that this is no longer acceptable," Hassan said.

Michael Raouf, a lawyer with the El Nadeem Centre for the Management and Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence, said he realised the impact of such rulings when he overheard young men commenting about the clothing of a nearby woman.

"One was saying 'Look what she's wearing. Her brother or father let her leave the house looking like that, and if you say anything they put you in jail'," Raouf recalled.

From the very beginning, anti-harassment efforts sprang from the grassroots.

Public debate

The issue was brought to the forefront of public debate in 2006, when throngs of men assaulted women in central Cairo during a public holiday.

Newspapers ignored the incident, but bloggers reported it.

Following the 2011 uprising, anti-harassment graffiti spread around downtown Cairo, volunteers organised to rescue women from mob attacks, and more women shared their own stories publicly.

In February 2013, women took to the streets brandishing knives in a symbolic protest against sexual violence.

"Those who recall Noha's case, those who remember 2006 and people calling us crazy, those who recall 2013 with people saying 'No, these things do not happen in Tahrir', now there is a difference," said Hassan.

Even those who make excuses for harassers can change their minds when volunteers discuss it with them, said Alia Soliman, a spokeswoman for anti-harassment group HarassMap.

"When we approach them little by little, with awareness they reconsider their convictions," said Soliman.

HarassMap organised talks at universities, trained Uber drivers and broadcast anti-harassment campaign advertisements on television and radio.

But for 22-year-old Yosra Abdelaziz, the change is not coming fast enough. She tried to report harassers but without success. Even at home, she says her older brother harasses her.

"This thing with my brother, I used to tell no one. Now I tell everyone and write about it on Facebook," Abdelaziz said.

She has now found some peace and let go of the guilt and shame, and is looking for her own apartment so she can lead an independent life.

"Imagine if we weren't standing up to it, what the situation would be like," said Elostaz. "In the end, what's happening here is resistance."

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