The scope of the problem

Egyptian director Mohamed Diab's film "Cairo 678" documents the lives of 3 women, all victims of sexual harassment and assault and who organize collectively against it.

A still from "Cairo 678."

The waves of sexual assault and harassment on the streets of Egypt have been in the news perpetually: Initially as a disheartening stain on the euphoria generated from the promise of political change, then as a component of the violence and oppression that has emerged in recent months. Despite being released in 2010, “Cairo 678,” written and directed by Mohamed Diab, regained broader recognition in the early stages of Egypt’s transition, as international outrage grew over attacks on foreigners and Egyptians alike. Now, well over two years since the revolution began, Diab’s film and the issue of sexual harassment are as pertinent as ever. Mohamed Diab is currently the San Francisco Film Society’s Fall 2013 Artist in Residence. I recently spoke with him about the film, harassment, and his thoughts on Egypt’s future, two years on.

“Cairo 678” is Diab’s first foray into directing, following a successful run as a screenwriter. The film documents the lives of three women from diverse backgrounds who have all been victims of sexual harassment and assault, and who work together to combat the problem. The women include Fayza, a mother from a low-income background who dreads taking the bus to work, anticipating the almost inevitable groping, Seba, a wealthy artist who is attacked by a gang of men at a football rally and responds by setting up a self-defense class for women, and Nelly, a stand-up comedian who files Egypt’s first sexual harassment lawsuit.

It was the story of Noha Roshdy, the first woman to file a sexual harassment case in Egypt, and who was the inspiration behind the character Nelly, that initially made Diab aware of the scope of the problem. When he heard of the case, he decided to attend the trial. Describing an interaction he witnessed, Diab explained: “I remember two reporters who were covering the story for news channels, they were making fun of the girl. One was saying to the other: ‘This guy deserves 15 years.’ The other turned to him and asked why, he replied ‘because he could have harassed a much better looking girl.’ I was sitting next to them and thinking, what if I were the brother of the girl?”

Diab says that after gaining insight into the extent of the problem, he felt obligated to show, particularly to men, the impact of harassment on women in Egypt. He references the police detective in his film as a representation of a portion of the target audience: an everyday man who is misinformed, or takes the issue too lightly, until it hits close to home. Diab explained that in a way the film is an apology: “As a man I really felt that we should apologize, not because all Egyptian males are harassers – the number of harassers is very low (because they’re not caught, perpetrators attack repeatedly). The majority of the rest of men in Egypt know nothing about this, because in their circles, the women who get harassed never tell them.”

The need for the issue to be better exposed became clear when the film was released. Diab described the buzz it generated, as men denied the harassment, and women confirmed its prevalence. The film was accused of exaggerating the problem, and Diab had three lawsuits filed against him: One attempting to prevent the film from going to festivals as it would tarnish Egypt’s reputation, one claiming Diab was encouraging women to stab men in the groin (character Fayza’s choice tactic to fight back against aggressors), and one filed by Egyptian pop star Tamer Hosny. The latter was Hosny’s response to one of his songs being used in the film’s trailer, the background music for an attack on a crowded bus. The song’s inclusion was no mistake. Diab explained that several of Hosny’s songs insinuate, even promote, harassment and worse. The song in question and the music video that accompanies it, includes Hosny pursuing a woman who continuously rejects his advances, he keeps following her until he ends up in her apartment. The song ends with him cornering her, grabbing her scarf and caressing her. Under the resulting pressure, Hosny has since made a song talking about harassment. Diab expressed: “I have nothing against him, I have something against what he was doing in those songs.”

On the other side of the spectrum, Cairo 678 also prompted a public response from the Salafi Al-Nour party’s co-founder and spokesperson Nader Bakkar. After sending him the film, Diab received a phone call. “He saw the film and he called me, and told me he had cried.” Shortly after their conversation, Bakkar delivered a speech during the celebration of Eid, talking about sexual harassment.

Three weeks after the film’s release, harassment, an offense previously unmentioned in Egyptian law, was made into a crime. Diab hopes his film helped secure this outcome, but credits Roshdy and the revolution for the dialogue that has emerged. Roshdy has since had to leave Egypt because of the pressure and harassment resulting from her case.

The developments since have been a mixed bag. “Even though people have been acknowledging it more and more, the attacks have become more brutal.” Referencing some of the horrific events of this year, Diab expresses his concern about the increasingly premeditated crimes. “The gang sexual harassment that I described in my film, and that I witnessed with my own eyes was something that was not organized. [In these cases] someone breaks the wall and touches a girl and everyone jumps in without knowing each other. Now they’re organized, there is more and more hunger for blood. Some of the latest attacks have been brutal.”

But Diab is quick to clarify that this is not exclusively an Egyptian problem. Everywhere he has shown the film, he says, women have approached him and told him how common it is in their communities. This has happened from the US, to Switzerland, to Mexico, to France, to India. “What I learned by showing the film is that it has nothing to do with race, religion, or any culture.” He qualifies that in other regions, “you may find fewer numbers because there is law, there is no stigma, and it is acceptable to have premarital sex, but if there was no law, you would find increased numbers of harassers.” The question for Diab is not culturally specific. Instead, he asks: “Why is there a desire to sexually harass women in the first place?”

The focus on Egypt and Islam was something that he found frustrating when the film was initially released. “The first couple of times I had interviews with large newspapers, I would read all the comments and they were accusing the culture and religion. I am a practicing Muslim, and one of the reasons I made this film was because I really felt, as a Muslim (or any other religious male in the world), you could not want to see anyone living through this injustice.” Diab made the film to help expose a problem, but has since become well acquainted with the dangers and frustrations of misrepresentation. Pointing to his decision to make a film on this subject, he expresses his hope that more Arabic women will make Arabic films to represent issues they face, but also show that they are not as mistreated as people may think.

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