12/06/2014 11:15 BST | Updated 10/08/2014 06:59 BST

Think You've Got It Bad in Egypt? Try Being an Egyptian Woman

Justice in this instance was swift and - dare we say - rather needlessly violent. What is astonishing is that had Sa'id assaulted an Egyptian woman, nothing would have happened...

Two thuggish police officers stood at the end of the hospital bed. Together with the director of the hospital, they pushed Sa'id - the orderly - against the wall, yelling profanities whilst punching, kicking and beating the breath out of him. With each thud accompanied by his gasps and cries, I cried for them to stop.

It was 2009. I had only been in Egypt a week when I found myself waking up from anesthesia after an appendectomy in Alexandria's student hospital, Sa'id sitting on my bed and kissing my face, his hands in my hair. I'd pushed him away, too groggy to make a noise, and immediately buzzed for the nurse. Before I knew what was happening, Sa'id was being beaten up in front of me, dragged to the police station in Alexandria's Mansheya district, and chucked into jail.

"You'll need to head to court to make a statement and sign papers" said the hospital director. "The man harassed a guest in our country, so he'll be sent to jail."



Justice in this instance was swift and - dare we say - rather needlessly violent. What is astonishing is that had Sa'id assaulted an Egyptian woman, nothing would have happened. The entire event would have been shrugged off, the girl left feeling vulnerable and upset, most likely blamed for the attack herself whilst Sa'id continued his ordinary daily life. But for assaulting a 'foreign girl', it was a different story entirely. This double standard is, quite simply, sickening.

Many in the west assume that sexual harassment in Egypt is primarily targeted at foreign women. But this is simply not true. Whilst for us it is an uncomfortable dimension to our trip abroad, for Egyptian women young and old, veiled and unveiled, rich and poor, harassment is an ugly part of their day to day lives. Just this week, graphic videos emerged of mob attacks on women in Tahrir Square during celebrations to inaugurate al-Sisi. Public space and private space, the street, the home and the workplace - the problem is endemic. According to a 2013 UN study, 99.3% Egyptian women have experienced some form of sexual harassment - but no more than half a dozen have successfully taken their harassers to court, the blame generally placed on the harassed, rather than the harasser. "When we were at school, my friend's Arabic teacher repeatedly tried to kiss her. She was terrified but refused to tell anyone about it," says Basma, a friend.

Walking down the Alexandrian corniche last summer with Basma - tall and slim but always dressed modestly, a hijab neatly wrapped around her hair - cars slowed down as they passed, with men calling out to her. "Skinny whore," they yelled. "Slut." "It got a lot nastier after the revolution, there have even been mob assaults and now I have to be more careful where I go out on my own," explains Basma when asked about the comments we had just heard. "My family is more protective of its girls now, they are much less keen on us being out without men."

So when, last week, Egypt's outgoing president - Adly Mansour - announced plans to begin a crack-down on sexual harassment in the country, introducing new laws which will see harassers face jail sentences and fines up to LE5,000 (£415), many welcomed the move. "If it works, it will make my life a lot easier," said Basma, "so I can have more freedom in my city." Finally, the government has attempted to ellavate Egyptian women to the same status as foreigners.

But whilst the introduction of this law is a hugely important step, Egyptian women shouldn't be dropping their guard just yet. Concerns are high that the police will simply be unable - or unwilling - to enforce the law, and that women will remain fearful of reporting incidents of abuse. With harassment pervading society the way it does (just look at this video of school kids talking about it), efforts need to be made to tackle the root of the problem, rather than merely the effects. The work of civil society groups such as Harassmap, I saw harassment and the Heya Initiative are crucial in helping with this, working from the grassroots up to challenge the current 'social acceptability' of sexual harassment and altering the perception of women.

So what of Sa'id? He spent a fortnight in prison, lost his job, had his reputation ruined and his internal organs re-organised by the police. While it may have made him think again before touching foreign girls in a similar circumstance, it is questionable whether it changed his attitudes towards the treatment of women in general. Indeed, it may have altered his view of the security services more than of the opposite sex. If Egypt's government wants the situation to improve, it needs to use more than straightforward punishment and start focussing on the source of the problem. Changing laws can only go so far. The disease itself needs to be treated.

- Basma's name has been changed to protect her identity