Nearly every woman in the Egyptian capital has experienced leering, whistles, groping or other sexual harassment in the street, according to some studies. Soon they will be able to instantly speak out on the internet.
A planned website, Harrasmap, will allow women to quickly report instances of harassment via text message or micro blogging website Twitter. They will be loaded onto a digital map of Cairo to show hotspots and areas that might be dangerous for women. The data will be shared with activists, media and police.
“The whole idea is to have user-generated information,” said Engy Ghozlan, one of the volunteers organising the program, which is to launch within months.
The map could also give a graphic depiction of the extent of a problem that women say is pervasive in Egypt, but which authorities are only just starting to acknowledge.
A 2008 survey by the Egyptian Center For Women’s Rights found that 83% of Egyptian women and 98% of foreign women living in Cairo said they had been harassed in some way – and 62% of men admitted to harassment.
But until recently, the issue was rarely dealt with publicly. Only after web videos of women being molested in the street by crowds of young men during a holiday four years ago did the problem register in the media.
Since then, a bill outlining criminal punishment for sexual harassment has gone to parliament, though it has yet to vote on it.
There are numerous theories as to why harassment is so common in Cairo. Some attribute it to a growing Muslim conservatism spreading the idea that women should stay out of the public sphere.
Others cite widespread unemployment among the young, leaving them bored, frustrated and unable to marry. Many Egyptians see a broader breakdown of courtesy and morals amid a poor economy and political stagnation.
Organisers of Harassmap say the problem is not being overblown, affecting women whether or not they wear the conservative Muslim headscarf and reaching the point where women avoid the streets.
“It’s become part of their everyday life that they have to endure,” said Ghozlan.
Harrassmap, which will be anonymous, aims to give women a tool for expression and a feeling of solidarity, Ghozlan said.
However, it is not a counselling hotline or a replacement for alerting police. After sending an SMS message to the site, women will receive encouragement, safety tips, and instructions on how to file a police report.
The plan resembles a site launched in multiple cities around the world, called Hollaback, where women write about incidents where they felt violated or harassed.
Cairo’s online map will run off a platform called Ushahidi, an open-source software first developed to report violence in Kenya after 2008 elections there. Since then, test models of it have run in South Africa, Gaza and India.
Activists have welcomed the idea, but said it will not go far enough.
Azza Sulieman, director of the Center for Egyptian Woman’s Legal Assistance, says Harassmap will be a useful but might exclude the illiterate and less tech-savvy Egyptians. It also faces a culture that discourages women from talking about harassment or blames their dress or behaviour.
“The issue is sensitive,” Suleiman said. “Sometimes, the first time, she doesn’t tell, the second time, she doesn’t tell, the third time, she tells.”