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RANYA KHALIFA: "Democracy Digest"...

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"Anti-sexual harassment initiatives: the birth of "vigilante justice"?...

Posted on October 31, 2012 at 1:00 PM

Eid al-Adha in Egypt, a time previously known for children rejoicing in the streets in newly purchased colorful outfits, outdoor family outings, and entertaining TV shows, has slowly but most certainly metamorphosed into a time of fear and apprehension for Egyptian females.  Yes, sexual harassment, an old, yet increasingly pressing issue, is now at the forefront of newspapers, social media networks, and TV talk shows.  Finally, this social phenomenon is now in the limelight, thanks to the Egyptian media, civil society organizations and human / women's rights groups in Egypt who have long called for the government to amend the Penal Code and to punish harassers.


Suffice it to say that two-thirds of Egyptian women experience sexual harassment on a daily basis, according to 2008 statistics published by the Egyptian Center for Women's Rights.  Moreover, the National Council for Women (NCW) reported that women in Egypt are harassed seven times every 200 meters! (Al Arabiya news). It is figures such as these that have prompted a number of Egyptian volunteers, men and women, to organize an initiative "Eid without Harassment" campaign, mainly targeting Talaat Harb Square in downtown Cairo, as well as the "Seen Harassment" activist initiative which accuses Prime Minister Hesham Qandil of failing to take necessary security measures to prevent such violations.


Such volunteer groups / initiatives have openly criticized (and for good reason) the manner in which the Egyptian police deals with harassment complaints, claiming that they are improper and typically allowing for the offenders to get away with the abuse.  Activists hold the Interior Ministry responsible for protecting citizens.  After all, isn't protecting citizens and reprimanding criminals the main tenet of the Interior Ministry?  And when women comprise 51% of Egyptian society, then in effect, half the population is being impeded on a daily basis from exercising their right to freedom of movement, a right which is stipulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.


Yet, despite such initiatives, this week's Eid al-Adha holidays, saw 727 cases of verbal and sexual harassment reported cases across Egypt, typically taking place in public gathering places such as malls, cinemas and beaches (Al Masrayalyoum, Monday, October 29, 2012), finally bringing Prime Minister Qandil to condemn sexual harassment on his facebook page, calling it a "catastrophe" that threatens society.  Qandil acknowledged that the Cabinet is preparing a law to impose harsher penalties for sexual harassment.  Moreover, President Morsy himself finally addressed the escalating problem, ordering his Interior Minister to investigate a rash of assaults that have taken place this Eid.


I am grateful for the men and women who took to the streets of Cairo and other governorates, in order to protect women from sexual harassment and to bring harassers to justice (by either spraying them with paint or by handing them over to the police).  But then, an uneasy feeling sweeps over me as I ponder the ramifications of such initiatives and how they may splinter and interact with other aspects of Egyptian society.  Can such initiatives metamorphose into some sort of "vigilante justice"?

"Vigilante justice" is rationalized by the idea that adequate legal mechanisms for criminal punishment are either nonexistent or insufficient.  Vigilantes typically see government as ineffective in enforcing the law; and such individuals often presume to justify their actions as fulfillment of the wishes of the community" (Wikipedia).  Is this not the case here with such anti-sexual-harassment initiatives?  And why wouldn't other "volunteers" and initiatives start to use the very same rationale? Could a group of hardline salafis who call themselves "Al Amr b al-maarouf w al nahy aan al monkar" , loosely translated into "Giving righteous advice and prohibiting sinful behavior" begin to roam the streets of Egypt and apply what they believe is best for the Egyptian society in lieu of lax police presence?


Will such "activist initiatives" disappear once the police puts its foot down and laws are enforced? Will the Egyptian police accept "help" from volunteers in manning Egypt's streets?  And if such voluntary presence on our streets is acceptable by the Interior Ministry, could it not open the door for future turmoil? 


I am of the opinion that the anti-sexual-harassment initiatives are to be commended for pressuring the government and Interior Ministry into enforcing the law and slapping harsher sentences on harassers, but by the same token I am wary of citizens taking it upon themselves to enforce "the law" in an effort to protect "the people".  It is here that the rule of law must reign supreme or else volunteer militias will spring up all over Egypt, each taking it upon itself to fulfill the wishes of "their community".









 






Categories: Egyptian Politics Today...

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