Behind the pay wall

Last week, the Wall Street Journal ran an article about street harassment. Folks who don't subscribe or didn't find a free copy had the same problem we did - you simply couldn't read it. Good thing we found the full text article online elsewhere. Enjoy.

Educating, Offending at the Same Time

Egyptian Campaign Against Harassment Raises Awareness, Ire

By Mariam Fam

September 13, 2007

CAIRO — Earlier this year, ad-agency co-owner Mohamed El Sawy launched a public-awareness campaign against sexual harassment on the streets of Egypt, a problem that is drawing increasing attention here.Through a cultural center he founded, Mr. El Sawy put up signs along the streets of Cairo and nearby Giza. The ads warned men that if they didn’t take action to prevent harassment, their mother, sister or daughter could be the next victim.

Mobile-phone operator Mobinil provided funding, and in June, the ads began running in about 100 lighted boxes. Such boxes, essentially small-scale billboards, are used frequently by advertisers here.

The ads, in bright red-and-black lettering on a yellow background, played with four variations on a theme: If men don’t put an end to street harassment, women in their own families could be next. The phrasing, in Arabic, was the same in all four versions, except for one change: “your mother,” “your sister,” “your daughter” or “your wife.”

But the warning that one’s female relatives might be targeted was deemed too provocative by some. One version in particular pushed the envelope. It translated: “Your mother — refrain and stop others before it’s her turn.”
In Egypt, as in the U.S., “your mother” can have different connotations — some seen as inappropriate for public advertising, particularly in much of the Middle East, where a man’s honor can be tied to the reputation of his mother and other women in his family. The words can be said in more than one way in Arabic, and the particular phrase used in the signs — omak — can also be associated with an insult, as it can be in English.

A columnist for daily newspaper Al Akhbar blasted the campaign, saying the reference was offensive and warning that the signs might give tourists the impression that Cairo’s streets were unsafe.Cairo officials ordered the ads removed. An employee of the governorate of Cairo says the city received complaints from ordinary Egyptians offended by the phrasing of the ads. Mr. El Sawy pulled all the ads. He says officials in Giza didn’t order the ads removed, but he took those down, too.

The controversy over the campaign underscores the challenges involved in navigating sometimes-competing cultural sensitivities in a place like Egypt. The Arab world’s most populous country, it is a pop culture and media hub for the rest of the region. But it remains socially conservative and religious.

Harassment — from catcalls and lewd remarks to indecent exposure and groping — is a troubling urban social ill here. A few recent high-profile cases have drawn more attention to the problem. Activists have accused the government of not doing enough to crack down on offenders.

“The message has to be provocative,” Mr. El Sawy says. “It is a serious issue.” He says some women came up to him to thank him for the campaign.But antiharassment campaigners need to tread lightly, says Nehad Abolkomsan, who heads the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights, a nonprofit group based in Cairo. Many Egyptians feel issues like sexual harassment aren’t pressing enough to warrant much attention in a country that suffers from poverty and unemployment, she says.

Elham Abu El Fateh, the Al Akhbar columnist who wrote about the El Sawy campaign, says that while the campaign’s creators meant well, it failed to accommodate the sensitivities of the audience. “We’re a religious society and we hold the mother in high esteem,” she says.”You feel a stab in the heart” when reading the “mother” sign, Ms. Abu El Fateh wrote in a column.

The campaign could scare women away from public places and give tourists a bad impression about the country, she wrote. “Have the streets of Cairo been transformed into a jungle of sick people harassing women?” she wrote. “Of course not.”Hala El Khatib, a spokeswoman for Egypt’s Ministry of Tourism, says it is the harassment — not campaigns against it — that could hurt tourism. But she is no fan of the wording of Mr. El Sawy’s “mother” ads either. “It’s a bit shocking,” she says.

Mobinil, the sponsor whose name appeared on the ads, didn’t return calls for comment. Mr. El Sawy’s center has spearheaded other public-interest campaigns against smoking, wasting water and honking horns unnecessarily. But he wasn’t expecting the reaction he got with the antiharassment messages.Still, he says, he is determined to carry on. He wants to produce antiharassment TV spots to air on Egyptian and Arab satellite channels. He worries that the black eye the campaign suffered may scare away potential sponsors but says that won’t deter him.

“It is not smart to hide our problems,” he says. “They won’t be solved unless they’re exposed.”


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