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Egypt Confronts Sexual Harassment

17/07/2014 11:15 BST | Updated 15/09/2014 10:59 BST

Mayam Mahmoud is often found commanding the stage rapping her powerful lyrics promoting women's rights. The 19-year old Egyptian rose to prominence after appearing on popular TV show Arabs Got Talent, where her lyrics caught attention for denouncing sexual harassment.

This week, however, Mahmoud is heading for the classroom and leading a workshop to help other women learn to express themselves - part of a growing trend in Egypt that is seeing the arts spearheading the fight against sexual violence.

Despite the recent criminalisation of sexual assault in the penal code, talking about sexual harassment remains sensitive in Egypt, a country where more than 99% of women have experienced some form of sexual harassment. For years, the main narrative around sexual abuse has focused on blaming the victim and encouraging silence, with the widespread perception that talking about harassment was "shameful". But denying the issue did not make it disappear, and the climate of impunity toward harassers contributed to the worsening of the phenomenon. In the past three years, Egypt has experienced a surge in sexual violence against women. During the period February 2011 to January 2014, Egyptian women's rights groups documented thousands of cases of sexual harassment, as well as crimes of sexual violence against at least 500 women, including gang rapes and mob-sexual assaults with sharp objects and fingers.

Shortly after her first TV appearances, Mahmoud started to receive threats from some people who disapproved both what she was denouncing and the way she was denouncing it. "I received threats from people who said I gave a bad image of Islam and that I was a danger to the mind of girls," she says.

With police, politicians and the judiciary seeming incapable of tackling the issue effectively, activists are turning not just to music but to the arts more widely to help lead the fight back. "In the past five years, more women artists have succeeded in taking the issue of sexual harassment to the public space," says Nada Redah of feminist organisation Nazra, which organised the workshop with Mahmoud. "Mayam is very young and she's very good at expressing herself, so she can inspire the other young women participating in the workshop to do the same. We try to give them a space to express themselves and find the courage to tell their stories in public."

A new multimedia documentary by freedom of expression charity Index on Censorship explores how Egyptians are using theatre, music, dance and graffiti to tackle the issue of sexual harassment and violence against women in Egypt. "Shout Art Loud" features interviews with artists, original artwork, video interviews and performances, including one from Mahmoud, winner of Index's 2014 Freedom of Expression Arts Award.

Her workshop is part of a bigger project aimed at producing feminist songs, and initiatives like this - using the arts to tackle sexual harassment and encourage discussion and debate in society - have multiplied since 2011. Walking around downtown Cairo, for example, it is impossible not to notice the prolific pro-women graffiti and murals denouncing violence against women. On the city's walls, revolutionary political slogans are scrawled beside calls for the respect of women's rights, and for women to speak out when they face sexual harassment.

Using graffiti and street art to touch on issues related to sexual harassment and prompt dialogue with society is a deliberate move. Merna Thomas, co-founder of the campaign Graffiti Harimi explains that graffiti has become one of the most popular forms of activism, and Graffiti Harimi uses the art form to give women "a voice" in Cairo's public spaces. The project involves spray-painting images of powerful female Egyptian voices alongside inspirational quotes. "Women didn't have a voice," says Thomas, "my hope is to open a debate within society, to start a dialogue, even unconsciously, with people who pass by our graffiti every day."

You can see Index's new documentary "Shout Out Loud" by visiting www.indexoncensorship.org/shoutoutloud