Artists fight violence against women in Egypt
Although sexual harassment has recently been made a crime in the country, incidents of assault are on the rise
By Anny Shaw. Web only
Published online: 20 August 2014
Egyptian graffiti artists, cartoonists, performers and dancers are joining forces to fight back against sexual violence. Seven men may have been jailed for life in July for brutally sexually assaulting women at public rallies—including celebrations in Cairo following the June election of President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi—but incidents of sexual violence are on the rise in Egypt. More than 99% of women have experienced some form of harassment, according to a recent report by the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights.
Melody Patry, a London-based film-maker and advocacy officer for the charity Index on Censorship, spent several months in Egypt last year interviewing around 20 artists for her documentary, “Shout Art Loud”, which she finished in June. The aim of the film, Patry says, is “to break down the barriers between art and daily life and to encourage women to speak out against sexual assault”. Patry says the term “artivists” is increasingly being used in Egypt to describe artists who are also activists.
In the documentary, the artist and activist Merna Thomas describes how she co-founded the project “Graffiti Harimi” in 2012 to “promote positive images of women in public spaces”. After the January 2011 revolution, graffiti sprang up throughout Egypt as a form of popular protest, but Thomas noticed that many images were painted for men, or were derogatory towards women. “So we thought, why not start addressing women?” she says.
There has been a sharp rise in cases of sexual assault and rape since the January 2011 revolution. Activists say hundreds of protesters have been assaulted during demonstrations, many in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. According to Patry, there was another spike last year in the month leading up to July ousting of President Morsi, when mass demonstrations were happening daily.
With the latest attacks on women receiving widespread media attention—at least nine incidents of mob sexual assaults in Cairo were reported during President Sisi’s election celebrations—the police, politicians and the courts are being forced to act. In early June, sexual harassment was made a crime in Egypt, punishable by up to five years in prison. “Art has played an active role in this by forcing the issue into the public sphere,” Patry says. “Where the authorities were denying it, artists were painting it on the walls of the capital city.”
Another artist featured in Patry’s documentary is Deena Mohamed, the 19-year-old art student behind Qahera, Egypt’s first online comic about a hijab-wearing super heroine. “Art is one of the most necessary mediums to impact society,” Mohamed says. “In general it matters because art is a necessary medium of expression that transcends words, biases and cultural barriers.”
Meanwhile, male artists are also showing their support. El Zeft is a male street artist who has created an image of Nefertiti wearing a gas mask with the words “a woman’s voice is revolution”, spray-painted in Egyptian underneath. The image was first painted in 2011 shortly after the revolution, but went viral as a result of the recent wave of demonstrations against sexual terrorism. “It became a symbol of solidarity for Egypt,” Patry says. “When harassment is such a deep-rooted problem in Egypt, it’s important to see men not just as abusers, but as ambassadors and role models for other men,” she adds.
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