How Can We Combat Harassment and Why Should We Care? Launching the AUC SpeakUp Dialog Series

speakup dialog

“The hardest problems to solve are those that we find too shameful even to name or to admit exist,” said President Francis Ricciardone in his opening remarks during the inauguration of the AUC SpeakUp Dialog Series held last Thursday.  

“At AUC, we think of ourselves as progressive, and we don’t shy away from problems – we welcome them. We think our role in higher education is to address the great problems of our time, and we believe we do so effectively,” he added, emphasizing the role of leading higher education institutions in raising awareness on sexual harassment and conveying the measures AUC has taken to combat the issue.

As part of the AUCSpeakUp initiative, the University launched the AUC SpeakUp Dialog Series in Ewart Memorial Hall, AUC Tahrir Square. The series, inaugurated with a dialog on “How can we combat harassment and why should we care?” features a set of conversations around key topics ranging from social norms and portrayals of gender in film to safety of public spaces, workplaces, and college campuses.

The AUC SpeakUp Dialog Series is held in partnership with several institutions and prominent influencers to participate in the national conversation on sexual harassment to raise awareness of this critical issue.  AUC had recently formed an Advisory Board of distinguished leaders to help shape the topics, speakers, sequence and direction of the series.

The board members are Maya Morsy ’95, president of Egypt’s National Council for Women; Hisham El-Khazindar ’96, co-founder and managing director of Qalaa Holdings and AUC trustee; Christine Arab, UN Women Egypt country representative; Hoda Elsadda, professor of English and comparative literature at Cairo University; Rabab El Mahdi ’96, ’98, associate professor and chair of AUC’s Department of Political Science; Nadeen Ashraf, AUC student and founder of Assault Police; and Omar Samra ’00, adventurer, entrepreneur and motivational speaker. The first of the series was moderated by Farah Shash ’09, ’12, community psychologist and co-founder of The Community Hub.

The Dialog Series was launched to keep the issue of sexual harassment at the forefront, not only on campus but on a country level. In fact, sexual harassment is a global problem that has become prevalent in today’s time.

"When I was a student at AUC, we never heard of the word harassment," reflected Morsy. "I'm a 1995 graduate, so 20 years ago, this term never existed, but now it's widely heard in Egypt and the world. It's called sexual harassment. In my generation, it was called flirtation. ... The word harassment changed everything," she said, addressing the need to continue spreading awareness of sexual harassment and stressing that the constitution and Egyptian law protect women's rights.

In the past few years, women started to speak up and society's structure and ethics underwent a major change. There has undeniably been more awareness of the topic since 2010, when the magnitude of the issue was felt. That's especially with the passing of Egyptian laws in 2014 that address sexual harassment, which resulted in women gaining the confidence to speak up and report their experiences.

“In the case of Egypt, sexual harassment is quite advanced in the social dialog, particularly if you look where it sits in the region, both in Africa and the Arab region, and that’s extremely important. Laws are fine and incredibly important to combat sexual harassment, but it’s actually a behavior shift that is required,” said Arab.

“Laws need to be enforced; that means institutions like AUC have to enforce these with rigor, impartiality, and penalty. There has to be justice. That’s when the behavior starts to change.”

Last summer, numerous women took their incidents to both social media and court, shortly after @assaultpolice was created to support women to speak up while maintaining their anonymity, reflecting the significance of civil society organizations. "The accumulation of civil society organization initiatives is very important," said El Mahdi. "State institutions and civil society organizations actually complete each other's work; they're not against each other - [working] to create an environment where people can speak up," El Mahdi noted, stressing the importance of such integration without incriminating the victim at the societal or institutional level

On @assaultpolice, Ashraf, who launched the Assault Police Instagram account that reinvigorated Egypt's #MeToo movement, explained how social media was an efficient tool in fighting sexual harassment.

"I was just sitting for years seeing that no one is taking this issue seriously from the community around me. For years, girls were told not to talk about this: 'This is not acceptable,' 'This is wrong,' 'We cannot talk about these things'", she said. "I reached a level where I felt I had to do something. ... I noticed with the first story I shared that the survivors of harassment realized that they have similar experiences and that they were not the problem, but the real problem was the harassers and society."

During the same period, several initiatives were being held on a country level by different institutions and individuals, including Samra. "Posts about social media were starting to spread about sexual harassment," he said. "I was so concerned, unhappy and upset."

"I know that this problem has been there for years, but I was upset because I didn't find that men are talking about it enough," Samra added. "There has to be a higher responsibility on men to talk about it. I believe that we're at a stage where if we're saying that we have the laws and penalties, we must all delve into a stage where the whole society becomes Assault Police. ... Silence at this stage is almost a crime."

On the workplace level, the private sector may be seen as relatively hesitant when it comes to discussing sexual harassment. Yet, there remains awareness of sexual harassment in the workplace, such as that by El-Khazindar. "I look at the issue of sexual harassment and sexual violence within a wider context related to women's empowerment, women's rights and the role of women, and I look at it from a developmental perspective," said El-Khazindar.

"At the end of the day, no community, no country, advances if half of this society, which is women, is not empowered and is subject to secondary treatment. For me, this is not an issue of man and woman but an issue of what is right and what is wrong," El-Khazindar added, emphasizing that universities have an essential educational role in creating the appropriate climate to set the rules and deter harassers, and the private sector has a role in setting a good example for institutions.

When it comes to educational institutions, units combating sexual harassment have been established at different universities, with 22 units in place to combat violence against women in Egyptian universities. Elsadda has been working since 2014 on policies fighting harassment inside universities and was one of the founders of the Anti-Harassment Unit at Cairo University in 2014.

"There was a revolutionary movement in Egypt for three years, that started from  2011 to 2014. Many taboos were discussed in society, and violence against women was one of the issues that were tackled by NGOs and other groups. ...In 2014, a law was passed to incriminate violence against women," Elsadda said.

"These university units are a first step in a long way. It's very important to enforce the law and reconsider the personal affairs code, family code and media coverage because all these elements together help in decreasing the incidents of sexual harassment."

Since the subject of the educational institutions and universities is a vast one, the next session of the Dialog Series on December 14 will tackle: “From the Playground to School: Does the Way We’re Brought Up Affect How We Treat Women?” Find out more here.

For more information:

AUCSpeakUp initiative

Dialog Series

Advisory Board profiles