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Harassing Women in Egypt? Prepare to Get Sprayed

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Despite worldwide publicity and campaigning, the approach to actually solving the sexual harassment epidemic in Egypt has sadly been a pretty apathetic one, with police giving less than a gram of shit about the situation, leaving street perverts to grope away until their hands are content. So it's perhaps no surprise that anti-harassment groups in Cairo have gone vigilante, taking what's left of the law into their own hands and patrolling the streets to fight the harassment epidemic themselves.

The members of one of the more radical anti-harassment campaigns -- "Be A Man" -- patrolled during the recent Eid al-Adha festival celebrations, armed with cans of black and white spray paint, attacking, pinning down and scarlet-lettering the shit out of grabbers and gropers with the words "I Am a Harasser." Mostly men themselves, the activists wore matching fluoro jackets with "Harassment Prevention" scrawled across their backs in Arabic. I spoke to Muhammad Taimoor, leader and founder of the campaign, about their controversial tactics during the festival.

VICE: Hey Muhammad. Can you tell me a little bit about what's been going on in the past few weeks?
Muhammad Taimoor: Yeah, we've been working against harassment with our campaign, "Be a Man." A big problem here is that women-only carriages on the subway are being invaded by men who are then harassing the women onboard, so we've been working against that. It was Eid a couple of weeks ago and we were expecting that would be a particularly bad time for harassment. In the three days of Eid that I participated in, we caught about 300 cases of harassment -- that's 100 every day.

Wow, good job. How do you "catch" these cases?
Our tactics this time were pretty violent -- a lot of people were offended because they didn't like what we were doing. Basically, we attacked the harassers and spray-painted "I Am a Harasser" on anyone we caught in the act. The police weren't at all supportive of what we were trying to do and they clearly weren't ready to keep Egyptian women safe during Eid, so we did all the work on our own.

Why did you choose tagging with spray-paint as a tactic?
Because, in our society, a girl blames herself when she gets harassed. When she speaks out to her family about it, they blame her. Sometimes they prevent her from going to school or going outside because they think that sexual harassment is the girl's problem, not the harasser's problem. So, when our group attacks the harasser, the girl feels confident in herself. She feels like she was right, she feels like the street is supporting her. She'll have the confidence to walk in the street without fear and she won't be afraid to speak out if it happens again.

How did you get people together for the campaign over Eid?
We collected people on Facebook and got about 30 to 50 people over the three days to join us. I think we did a great job. Just between us, we caught 300 harassers. If everyone in Egypt does what we're doing and protects the ladies in their hometowns, it would improve the situation so much, because the police don't bother at all. A little justice is better than no justice.

What do the police have to say about what you're doing?
They think we're not doing a good job, that we should be cooperating with them and that we shouldn't be attacking people in the street. They don't like it, basically. I was arrested, along with some other people who attacked harassers. But, seeing as they're doing an awful job of keeping women safe from harassment, someone has to step in.

Have the police or the government not done anything at all to combat harassment?
The government aren't treating it with the attention it needs; they're underestimating it. The first research into harassment was only seven years ago and the researchers were accused of being disloyal and treasonous. So the publicity and examination of the subject is new to Egypt -- even the police hold the Egyptian idea of blaming the girl -- so I think it'll take a long time to move forward properly.

What's it like being involved in this campaign as a man?
It's an honour. I think the first step towards fighting this phenomenon in our society is not to be afraid -- as men -- to acknowledge its existence. I'm not afraid to say that my society is growing more masculine -- giving far more rights to men that it does to women -- and one of the biggest problems is how people seem to deny that's happening.

Do you ever come up against problems with the public themselves?
No, not really. I've been working with the group for around a year and, although we've had quite a few problems with the police, we don't have that many direct problems with general members of society. Plenty of people are giving us credit for what we're doing -- they respect what we do. Anyway, I think protecting the girls is more important than respecting the law, so it wouldn't really change anything.

Is there any tension between you and the less violent campaigners?
Yeah, the non-violent campaigners criticised what we did. They want to work to prevent harassment before it happens, but I don't know how they would go about doing that. They'd also rather take harassers to the police, but I don't think that would work because it's difficult to convince the girl to go to the police to confirm what happened.

The Egyptian media have tried to paint us a violent group, but we're not. What we did during Eid was an exception -- desperate times called for desperate measures. So yeah, a lot of people aren't happy about the way we go about what we do, but it's simply the best way of doing it. Arresting the harasser and releasing him after two days isn't going to do anything for anyone.

Thanks, Muhammad. Keep on spraying.