Simple ideas are often the best ones. Creating a visual map of harassment in Egypt is one of those. Launched in December 2010, HarassMap was founded by Rebecca Chiao, a long-time Cairo-based human rights activist, and Engy Ghozlan, an Egyptian activist, equally engaged in women’s rights. Thanks to a very adaptable technology, victims of harassment are enabled to report on incidents through simply sending an SMS to HarassMap (0169870900).
From catcalls to touching, ogling and rape, the platform defines what harassment is, and makes it visual. With some 500 to 600 SMS messages received since its launch, it’s clear that HarassMap hasn’t solved the issue yet. But this innovative project has already helped change the face of harassment and the social taboos surrounding it through acknowledging its existence. Mashallah News met with Heba Habib, one of the core team members.
“Harassment had happened to me on literally every street had been to in Cairo: near the university, on main streets, in back alleys, at all hours.”
“The idea originated with Rebecca and Engy,” explains Heba. “They were both working for the ECWR (Egyptian Center for Women Rights) on a project against sexual harassment, but they were dissatisfied with how it was going. A friend of Rebecca’s approached her with the idea to use a new technology called Ushahidi, saying ‘Maybe you could use it to do something against harassment.’”
Initially created at the beginning of 2008 to map post-election violence s in Kenya, Ushahidi (which means “testimony” in Swahili) is a free open-source software dedicated to documenting eye-witness accounts. It is now being used by several Cairo-based projects, including HarassMap and Zabatak.
“Rebecca was very excited about the idea,” Heba recalls. “She went to Engy, and they spent a year discussing how to put it together and what kind of service they would provide. Would it be just a map or an actual business? How were they to make a good structure out of the idea?”
Finally, HarassMap was launched in December 2010. Not as business, and, technically, not as an NGO either, since the site is not registered. As Heba put it, “It’s just a website and a bunch of volunteers.” Some 500 volunteers are involved with the project now, located in every part of Egypt. From Port Said and Alexandria to Upper Egypt, the “Pink Mafia” as Heba calls it with a warm laugh, has sprung its wings.
Ushahidi (which means “testimony” in Swahili) is a free open-source software dedicated to documenting eye-witness accounts.
Harassment reports come from all over Egypt. A quick look at Cairo’s map is enlightening: not one single neighbourhood remains untouched. Red spots indicating the amount of recent reports are everywhere: central Cairo, suburbs, wealthy and poor areas, you name it. “It’s exactly what I expected,” explains Heba. “Harassment had happened to me on literally every street had been to in Cairo: near the university, on main streets, in back alleys, at all hours. So, of course, I wasn’t surprised. Men and families, on the contrary, were shocked by the results.”
A quick look at Cairo’s map is enlightening: not one single neighbourhood remains untouched.
Not only did the map prove how real and widespread harassment is, it also revealed how much girls and women were yearning for sharing the news with the rest of the world and Egyptian society. “The most terrible thing about harassment is not being able to go and talk to someone about it,” said Heba. “The girls would never talk about it because it’s so taboo. They were scared that their families would become overprotective and prevent them from living their own lives. If that’s something we’ve changed with HarassMap, that’s great already.”
Red spots indicating the amount of recent reports are everywhere: central Cairo, suburbs, wealthy and poor areas, you name it.
Mind it, girls are not the only ones to report on harassment. “We also get a few reports from men,” said Heba. “Sometimes, men are harassed by groups of women. Most men take it as a funny thing but some get scared crazy and report to us. We try not to laugh about it because it’s a real issue. Then, there are of course men being harassed by men. Men, who on the street hear propositions like ‘You want to go to my place?’. But you can count these reports on the fingers of your one hand.”
In order to make the website less woman-centric, the HarassMap team has been working on re-branding it completely and launching a campaign called “Emsek Motaharesh” (“Catch a harasser”). “We want the site to be a service for the community as a whole,” stated Heba.
“The most terrible thing about harassment is not being able to go and talk to someone about it.”
In addition to the free SMS service, the team had originally intended to set up a call centre as well, something that had been promised by the former Minister of Communication. But, the government having been dismissed, the idea was dropped. Instead, the team is now focusing on creating a proper research unit dedicated to harassment. “We’re trying to collaborate with other NGOs,” commented Heba, “to create a database to determine why harassment happens, who is the typical stalker is, and so on. To get the essence of what’s going on, really, because at the moment we don’t have much to work with. There’s no scientific basis, it’s just an on the ground experience, and it would be much better if we had more tools to determine that this is the kind of group we should be targeting, and how we should reach them.”
“We’re particularly excited about Palestine where a group of women’s NGOs are implementing a HarassMap starting in Ramallah. We also work in collaboration with other groups such as Nasawiya in Lebanon and Hollaback in the US. Hollaback has a system very similar to ours.” In June, HarassMap organised a day for blogging and tweeting about sexual harassment (#EndSh) with other NGOs from Egypt, Lebanon and the Sudan. “We were just encouraging people to talk about the subject and to use HarassMap,” says Heba. “We got one hundred blog posts and hundreds of tweets in only one day!”