Since moving from the U.S. to Egypt in 2004, Rebecca Chiao has witnessed one revolution and may actually be starting another—thanks in part to digital technology and social media.
In 2010, Chiao and her friends started a nonprofit project called HarassMap, inspired in part by Chiao’s own experience with sexual harassment, when a man in close proximity exposed himself to her on a busy street. She looked around for help, but no one interceded. At first she felt shame, asking herself if she had somehow provoked his behaviour, but when she finally opened up about what had happened, confessions came flooding back from women with similar reports.
“Over and over and over again, I was hearing stories from my colleagues, my friends, volunteers, and every single time they were saying that no one helped them,” Chiao told the Georgia Straight over Skype from the HarassMap office in Cairo. “This is really disturbing.”
As Chiao and her friends talked throughout 2005, HarassMap began to take shape as the first online tool of its kind in Egypt for people to report sexual harassment. But they all had to work on the initiative in their spare time because sexual harassment was so taboo.
“No one would talk about it,” Chiao said. “None of the women’s NGOs would work on it. Even the NGO I was working at, they wouldn’t work on it publicly. They let me work on it in my free time from the office, but they didn’t even want to put their name on it for a couple of years, until it became a more spoken-about issue.”
Since its test phase was launched in October 2010, with just a small announcement on Twitter, the demand for HarassMap has been clear.
“All we did was tweet it, a test, and asked people to check out the system and see how it works,” Chiao recalled, laughing. “Within an hour the server crashed. Even until today, we haven’t actually asked people to report.”
Yet HarassMap has received more than 950 reports of sexual harassment via its website, email, text message, and Twitter. The reports form a map that’s used by more than 500 volunteers (about 50 percent of whom are men) who take to the streets and their own neighbourhoods to raise awareness of the growing problem of sexual harassment and seek support in creating safe spaces.
But it hasn’t been easy. When HarassMap started its outreach component, there was a tremendous amount of community push-back about what even constituted harassment.
“There was a lot of shame associated with it,” Chiao recalled. “People had in their minds ideas like it means rape or child molestation. So, people would shout at us, like, ‘You can’t say those words, it doesn’t happen in Egypt, it’s obscene, stop talking like that!’ ”
What little discourse there was often focused on blaming the victim, the family, and economic circumstances—anyone and anything except the harasser.
“Even when we explained to people the definition [of harassment], it reflected on the victim,” Chiao said. “People were very shy to admit that it happened to them, because it basically meant they were admitting to be not respectable, or because at that time it was really considered to be the victim’s fault. We heard stories about marriages breaking up and people afraid to tell their husbands or fiancés or fathers because they would be punished.”
With the Delhi gang rape recently garnering a prime spot in international media coverage, and Anonymous employing its cyber sleuthing on the alleged Steubenville high-school rapists in Ohio, it’s hard to remember another time when sexual assault has sparked such a global outcry. This is yet another reason why HarassMap is so vital: it aims to deal with the problem at its root, ideally before harassment becomes assault, one click at a time.
Recent financial support from Canada’s International Development Research Centre has made it possible for HarassMap to finally have a small staff of 12 people. This will help HarassMap meet some of its earliest goals: better follow-up, identifying more safe areas by flagging shops and restaurants committed to stopping harassment, and securing anti-harassment policies within corporate environments, schools, and public transportation.
And of course HarassMap—which has gotten some help from Vancouver-based nonprofit PeaceGeeks—will continue to use technology to help empower Egyptians. In the days following the Straight’s interview with Chiao, HarassMap’s Twitter feed revealed online and in-person initiatives to “protect the revolution from organized mob sex assaults” in Tahrir Square and a 48-hour blogging and tweeting marathon imagining Egypt without sexual harassment. Cairo’s people are on the ground and leading the fight, but there’s no argument: this revolution is digitized.
“With social media, it’s growing,” Chiao said. “As soon as someone hears about your work, they can click the link and volunteer. They can click a link and recruit their friends. The effort is much less to get people engaged. Egypt is a huge country, and we don’t have any idea on how some of the people we get reports from heard about us. They’re in remote villages we would never have been able to reach without digital technology.”