“What am I supposed to do when I get harassed all the time? Keep a little man in my bag, so whenever anything happens, I get him out, blow him up, and he can answer instead of me?" - Nora Labib, A Way Out.
It’s piercingly shocking. It shifts around the objectification women are usually subjected to, and challenges the sense of normalcy cast in stone by social norms. “You said that you want to f*ck my t*ts, right? Show me what you will f*ck them with,” says the protagonist of the viral video that put Egypt’s sexual harassment epidemic in the spotlight last week. “Take off your pants and show me, because I have the right to pick,” says the protagonist, Nora, to the man sexually harassing her, while a studio enactment portrays a woman picking amongst a box of cucumbers.
The video is part of a series directed by Sharine Atif, an outspoken filmmaker who aims to use the power of film to empower women across the Arab World. Her project, A Way Out, began in 2014 when, inspired by her own experience as an Egyptian woman and the uprising of women in the Arab world, she set up a crowdfunding campaign to raise $10,000.
“For the first 19 years of my life I suffered immense abuse; I felt so alone and isolated. Films were my escape; films moved me to find a way out,” she said as she launched the campaign. “But I’ve since been blessed to meet many women who’ve stood up for themselves and what they want. Their stories have inspired me, and they will empower women to find a way out”.Two years later, the artist comes back with a shocking 18+ video that went viral and paralysed the entire media scape, as the first of her six protagonists shares the bold step she took when faced with sexual harassment. “Growing up in the Middle East, especially in a vicious city like Cairo, you are used to sexual harassment,” says the protagonist, Nora Labib. “At the beginning of your teenage years, you feel like it is your fault; you think there is something wrong with you as a woman. Then you grow more and more annoyed at the fact that you have to stop your life to hear what they say, so you have a whole range of reactions at the back of your mind,” she says.
In 2013, UN Women reported that 99.3 per cent of women in Egypt have been victim to sexual harassment at least once in their life. And while a new law – expressed in articles 306A and 306B of the Penal Code – now penalises harassment, including up to five-year prison sentences, and up to 50,000 LE in fines, the behaviour is not yet socially condemned as a crime.
“I can write you an endless scroll of how many times I’ve been harassed and by whom: family members, uncles, my best friend’s father, technicians in hospitals when I was seven or eight years old, and the list goes on,” says Sharine. “Probably every single male figure that was around in my life – that wasn’t directly a brother or father – has sexually harassed me. And there is this kind of submissive thing that you are raised up with here, that you have a hard time saying no, or knowing how to say no.”
“No one can understand how it feels to be objectified until they are.”
As the video went viral and sparked debate on an issue considered a national epidemic, aggressive reactions began to rain on the two women and opened a can of worms. Text messages, phone calls, death threats, and the repetitive phrase the harasser had told the protagonist. “There were nasty reactions, there were really demeaning and evil comments saying ‘you are not even pretty’. I’m not speaking this way because I am pretty; I am speaking this way because I want to be left alone, whatever I look like,” says Labib.
“But 80 per cent of the feedback we got was extremely positive. I got amazing messages, from Turkey, from Texas, from all over the world, from women sharing their stories and even men who stood up against those nasty comments,” says Sharine. But although most of the reactions were positive, Sharine and Labib – both filmmakers – were mindboggled by the lack of entitlement women seem to have.
“I think the anger that is obvious in these comments means that they got a real feeling of what it feels like to be harassed,” Sharine says. “Most of those evil comments are from harassers themselves, because they feel that the video is directed at them. Otherwise, why would they respond that way?,” explains the artist, who is carrying out her Master of Arts at the California Institute of the Arts and comes to Egypt to film the interviews on spring and autumn breaks.
“They reacted this way because they had a slice of what it feels like to be objectified. Just like you’ll never know what it feels like to be a parent until you are a parent; you’ll never know what it feels like to be harassed until you are harassed,” she says.
“But a lady shouldn’t use such language”
Beneath the trigger to people’s harsh reactions lies the social permissibility for a woman to speak out. In a society that praises male bravery but embraces submissive values for their female counterparts, using the same language is deemed immoral.
“Some women sent me condescending messages saying ‘you are a lady, you didn’t need to use such vile language',” says Labib. “But it is not nice for a lady to hear these things. If I spoke in a different way, it would be like you are talking to me in Chinese and I reply in French. He has to understand that this is not ok, and he has to be faced with the situation too,” she asserts. “What if you were being treated like this? What if you were being evaluated for your body? What if you are being objectified this way? You think that it’s ok to offer this to people in the streets; so dare to be qualified as well.”
As Sharine points out, the social acceptability of short-temperedness in the streets, whenever there is an accident or when people are fasting in Ramadan, rapidly becomes puzzling when it’s a woman who utters outright insults. “Just because it is a woman doing that to a man, then it becomes this whole ‘how dare you say that'!” she exclaims.
“What am I supposed to do when I get harassed all the time? Keep a little man in my bag, so whenever anything happens, I get him out, blow him up, and he can answer instead of me? Of course I can’t do that. What’s wrong with being biologically a woman? What does this extra piece of organ add to you that it gives you a voice? What makes a penis talk and not a vagina? Why do I have to own a penis to talk? Fine, if this organ is what matters to everyone around here, fine. Let’s buy it. They are sold in plastic, rubber, in all sizes and shapes; so we can have it in our bag,” says Labib with irony.
“Many people came up with excuses; from the youth’s sexual frustration, to victim-blaming women for how they dress and how they act. But there is no real excuse, nothing justifies that,” concludes Sharine, as she anticipates her upcoming videos to be released periodically.
Photography by @MO4Network's #MO4Productions.
Photographer: Islam Jericho