in 2011, Tahrir Square appeared as beacon of unity and equality. But as the revolution continued, reports of sexual harassment and violence became more frequent in the media. A powerful exhibition at Darb 1718 in Cairo now takes a second look at the problem.
During the initial stages of the Egyptian revolution last year, Tahrir Square was a symbol of unity, common goals, hope and relative equality. People slept in the square, there was very little violence, no crime, and women were protected and felt safe. However, as the revolution continued, more and more stories started to emerge that showed a different side of Egypt. While they were reporting on the extraordinary political transition that was taking place, female foreign journalists were publicly harassed, groped, beaten, and in some cases even completely undressed and assaulted. These stories naturally received a lot of attention in the international press, and following from that attention, Egypt and the rest of the world finally started to acknowledge a problem that ordinary Egyptian women have been all too familiar with. The fact that foreign women were harassed in Egypt finally drew our attention to the fact that Egyptian women have been enduring this ordeal for years.
However, these days Egyptian women are starting to speak up for themselves. They are drawing attention to the omnipresence of harassment on the Egyptian street, and they’re no longer afraid to talk about it, and to come forward as victims. This new awareness has led to several initiatives, such as Harassmap, which is designed to provide women with an interactive map of where they are most likely to get harassed, by having women themselves publicize details of how and where they were attacked. Many organizations also focus on creating awareness, educating young boys and generally bringing about the public dialogue that is needed to solve this problem.
One of the current initiatives that aims to tackle the issue of harassment, and to break the taboos that surround it is the “Harassment Exhibition”, which is done in cooperation with Harassmap and currently on display at the Cairo art gallery Darb 1718. The exhibition is a visual protest to the problem of harassment, featuring paintings, photographs and drawings by 15 artists from Egypt and abroad, who has provided diverse and highly personal pieces that focus on freedom, the body, repression, covering and exposing, trauma, fear and power. Norhan Alaa’s video project for example, shows women talking about how and where they were harassed, what exactly happened and how it has affected them. The video is accompanied by a life size mannequin doll, in which black nails have been hammered, symbolizing the scars that the experience of harassment leaves on a woman’s soul.
“We want society to think for a while about the harassment many girls have suffered from, to imagine the stress and disgust they feel. Sometimes women hate their bodies or even being female for this reason,” Enas Abul Qumsan, one of the participants in the exhibition, told The Egyptian Gazette last month.
Many of the works on display have strong links to the Revolution. Noha Samir’s wire mannequin, wearing a blue bra, jeans and a scarf, is an obvious reference to the “blue bra girl”, the anonymous woman whose own experience of assault and harassment by an Egyptian police officer during the protests in Tahrir, was caught on tape and subsequently came to symbolize all that was wrong with current attitudes to women. German artist Pit Becker’s posters feature the words LA (“no”) and KEFAYA (enough”) in bold letters. As those same words were used by political movements and appeared on posters and stickers as slogans of the uprising against the old regime, Becker unambiguously ties the problem of harassment to revolution, and simultaneously confirms the quest for a solution to this problem as central to the revolution.
The organizers of the Harassment exhibition are well aware that there is a long way to go, that Egyptian women will have to bring about their own revolution. But while the current discussion on harassment and the image of women in general is still in its early stages, a courageous exhibition like this one at Darb 1718 shows very clearly that at least Egyptian women will no longer be silent in the face of systematic oppression.
The Harassment exhibition is in its final weeks at the Darb 1718 Gallery. The Gallery is located in Coptic Cairo, Fustat area. More information about the exhibition and about the Gallery can be found at: http://www.darb1718.com