The People’s Girls

Egypt has a sexual harassment problem. Two young women decided to make a film about it.

Image by T U R K A I R O. Via Flickr CC.

Both domestically and abroad, the issue of sexual harassment has been called a sickness in Egyptian society. Abroad what had previously been framed mostly as an annoyance for female tourists, was thrust into the spotlight in 2011 following now infamous and violent attacks on both foreign journalists and local woman during the protests that led to the ousting of then President Hosni Mubarak. As a brighter light shone on the ubiquity and severity of the problem, multiple new grass roots organizations sprung up locally to help protect women, support victims, identify perpetrators, and shift a mentality that has allowed harassment and attacks to continue with impunity.

More recently, a particularly violent attack was caught on video and circulated widely. The video, which purported to show an assault that took place in Tahrir Square during President Sisi’s inauguration (controversial as its content and sourcing was), had the positive impact of pulling the issue of sexual and gender based violence to the forefront of national discourse. Following the attack, nine men were sentenced to life in prison.

In one of his final acts, outgoing interim president Adly Mansour criminalized sexual harassment, at last instituting a long talked about law, which threatened harsh penalties for perpetrators. President Abdel Sisi’s public condemnation, and sporadic enforcement of the new law seems to have somewhat quelled harassment and more serious attacks, but as evidenced by the work of two filmmakers Colette Ghunim and Tinne Van Loon’s demonstrative video; it remains a serious problem.

The short video shot by Ghunim, who got the footage by pretending to talk on her iPhone using a headset, has gotten a tremendous amount of press. Capitalizing on hype surrounding it, the two decided to launch a Kickstarter campaign with the goal of raising $25 000 to improve the production value of their half-hour documentary, “The People’s Girls.” At the time of writing the two have raised over US$18,000 with about 8 days to go.

Van Loon, who came up with the idea for the documentary, began collecting footage nearly a year ago. Her own experiences of harassment in Egypt, as well as the stories she heard from others, motivated her to do something to help maintain dialogue and public awareness around the issue. Last year Van Loon began conducting interviews. Setting up a website to help recruit participants, with the support of local rights groups she was quickly contacted by a substantial group of young women offering to share their stories and perspectives. A handful of men also volunteered, among them Mahmoud Othman, one of the founders of Tahrir Bodyguard.

Since the interviews were conducted the project has evolved substantially, with Ghunim and Van Loon joining forces. The final product is set to take the form of a narrative piece, inspired in part by Cairo 678, and documenting the lives and viewpoints of three disparate characters: A young activist, a tuk-tuk driver, and a lawyer working with a women’s rights organization.

So far the two have received mixed reviews for their preliminary efforts. The short viral video that runs 1:30 has exposed them to both praise and venom, and the substantial media attention it has garnered has been both reflective and misleading. Ghunim and Van Loon lament that several outlets have published articles on them and their work without their consultation. “Which is why I’m Egyptian now” Colette says laughing, “and I’m British” Tinne adds (both are American, of Palestinian/Mexican and Belgian descent respectively).

No Egyptian news outlet has contacted them, they explain, “Everything is wrong in the Egyptian media, and that’s why Egyptians are angry, it says I was just walking around with a camera, and of course people are going to stare at me. All of the information is available and they choose not to include anything.” To be fair, the journalistic integrity of some of these publications is regularly called into question. Youm7 for example, is the same paper that received pushback for publishing a shockingly racist headline a number of weeks ago.

It has not just been Egyptian outlets that have seized the opportunity to misrepresent. The opening line of an article that appeared on the website Inquisitr reads: “Women in Egypt feel sexually harassed while walking down the streets and two filmmakers decided to document what it is like to be a female, in this highly repressed African country.”

For their part, Ghunim and Van Loon are poignantly aware of the implications of two non-Egyptians making a film on sexual harassment, and have proactively called out those who misrepresent their work and goals. They engage with individuals who make racist or Islamaphobic comments, even those offering assistance for reasons they find ethically suspect. The film itself is to be entirely in Arabic, with a large part of the prospective Kickstarter money going toward proper translation.

The two remain slightly weary of the attention the short video has received. “When it first became popular, we weren’t sure if it was a good thing or a bad thing.” They explain that they are hoping to avoid local notoriety until the documentary has been completed. “The thing is,” says Van Loon “right now the only thing out there from us is the Creepers video, that’s not how we wanted to represent things. We don’t want to be known widely in Egypt until we have solid content.”

Clearly the popularity of the short video has been a mixed blessing for the two budding filmmakers, who have also noticed a slight reduction in the prevalence of sexual harassment on the streets of Cairo. As our interview naturally shifts to our own experiences, we discuss the increasingly common occurrence of men publicly warning other men against harassment; a phenomenon that seems to have become more widespread since the law took effect. Animated, Van Loon shares a story from earlier that day: For whatever reason the local laundryman had decided that this would be the day he would whistle at her suggestively. “When I told him that he was harassing me, my doorman high-fived me.” When it comes to this issue, a little solidarity goes a long way.

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