Having faced unwanted advances on the streets of Cairo, Egyptians should hail Menna Gubran for fighting sexual harassment.
Menna Gubran is an Egyptian woman who was waiting for a bus in a suburban Cairo street, when she noticed a man stalking her with his car. He drove around her bus stop several times, making her nervous, to the extent that she entered a nearby supermarket to escape. When Gubran came out of the store, she saw that the man, Mahmoud Soliman, had parked his car and was walking toward her.
Gubran is among the 99.3% of Egyptian women and girls who have been subjected to harassment, according to a 2013 UN Women report. Scared from the strange man approaching her, Gubran started filming Soliman on her phone. He told Gubran that he didn’t want her to be standing alone in a public street and invited her to join him for a coffee. Gubran declined. When Soliman realized he was being filmed, he apologized and walked away.
The woman later posted the video online, not expecting that, overnight, it would become one of the most widely watched and shared videos in Egypt, and that it would result in a wave of social media backlash against her.
Reaction on Social Media
While many social media users supported Gubran, and even applauded her for exposing Soliman, others, including women, brutally attacked her. Some users questioned if Soliman’s actions were even considered sexual harassment, since there was nothing “sexual” in their encounter.
The United Nations identifies a number of actions that fall under sexual harassment, including Soliman’s. The UN list includes: unwanted following, staring at a person, pressure for dates, unwanted remarks and unwanted questions. Soliman stalked Gubran when he circled around her with his car multiple times, and his entire conversation with her was clearly unwanted.
Yet many social media users did not see it that way. Numerous men came to Soliman’s defense. Posts ranged from those saying that Gubran overreacted and that Soliman was very polite, to saying it was OK for a guy to walk up to a girl he did not know and ask her out.
Male reactions also included humiliating posts that invaded Gubran’s privacy, sharing photos from her Facebook page. One user posted a photo of Gubran in a short evening dress and wrote, “Thank God I didn’t see her, or I would have told her, ‘let me invite you for one on the bed.” In another extremely offensive post, one man said, “Treat them [women] like nothing more than a sex object… look down upon them as long as they are asking for this… making them aware that they are nothing more than a butt, a vagina and breasts.”
Some women’s reactions were also negative. One Twitter user said, “On what basis is this called sexual harassment? From the video I watched, he was simply asking her to have coffee with him.” Another user went further, saying, “She’s a person with free time on her hand, she filmed a guy asking her for coffee and another guy asking her for an address; they were teasing, but that’s normal. Any girl is used to that. But I did not see any harassment; she just wants to become famous, and she is indeed famous now, but with a horrible reputation with her lingerie-like clothes!”
Now, I can understand the reactions of men to Gubran’s video, given that what she poses a threat to men. These are privileged men, whom, for years, have gotten away with harassing women and are now realizing that this will no longer be the case. But what is the excuse of women who are defending Soliman and turning the victim in this case into the culprit? It baffles me how these women did not for a second stop to think how scary and creepy this encounter was for Gubran and have instead chosen to shame and accuse her of seeking attention.
Sexual Harassment in Egypt
For decades, Egyptian women have experienced various forms of sexual harassment on Egyptian streets, everything from catcalling, to stalking, to groping and worse. Women endured these harassments silently, and even with shame. Yet in recent years — and thanks to various initiatives, including Harass Map and I Saw Harassment, among others — women are slowly finding the courage to stand up to harassers. We are finally beginning to see women expose these men and show them that their actions will not be tolerated.
Thanks to such women, and many male activists, sexual harassment went from a taboo topic that was never vocalized to a public issue that is widely debated. And so, with this gradual progress, it is especially problematic when it is women who are blaming other women. Women who accept harassment and view it as normal behavior that all women and girls have to put up with. Women who blame the victim and accuse her of encouraging a man’s advances by wearing revealing clothes.
It is remarks by such women that led Somali activist Hiba Shookari to post, “Some of us women were taught by their mothers to take off their shoes and throw it at the harasser, and some of us were taught to walk away hurriedly to escape, but girls around the world, irrelevant of their looks, religion or clothes, were taught the silence mechanism, and in our Eastern [culture] we went as far as to view reporting a harasser as a crime of which the girl has to bear the consequences.” But it is not a crime, and society should be hailing Gubran and other women like her who bravely stand up to these harassers, who are the real criminals.
As a society, we need to spread awareness on what sexual harassment entails. We need men and women to understand that unwanted advances are unwelcome, and that a woman’s clothes are never a justification for a man’s sick behavior.
Women, especially, need to understand that it is on us to fight this battle. It is women who endure the catcalling, the stalking, the dirty looks and the groping on a daily basis. It is women who have to walk hurriedly on the street, looking down or straight ahead, so as not to invite any unwanted advances. And so, it should be women who encourage and support other women in the battle to end this epidemic.
Another Menna Gubran
Thankfully, for every woman who attacked Gubran, there were numerous others who came to her defense. Gubran’s supporters, including many men, even created the Arabic hashtag #ISupportMennaGubran, which was widely circulated on Facebook and Twitter. Using this hashtag, supporters expressed their reasons for backing Gubran. Female supporters posted messages such as, “Pregnancy, periods, breast cancer, being walked on, rape, sexual harassment, abuse… females go through a lot… WE ARE STRONG,” and “ISupportMennaGubran because when women support other women… magical things happen.”
There is no doubt that Gubran’s actions have impacted her harasser, Soliman, and possibly other men, who will now think twice before approaching women in the street. With any luck, Gubran’s actions will also impact the thousands of other Egyptian women who face daily harassment, including women who are less privileged, with no means of voicing their anger or exposing their harassers.
As a mother of a little girl, I want my daughter to grow up strong. I want her to have courage and strength in the face of such harassers. I want her to be another Menna Gubran.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.