When hundreds of women recently protested against dictatorships in Tunisia, Yemen and Egypt, it seemed that an era of oppressive governments with sexist traditions might be coming to an end.
The excitement was short-lived.
On March 9, International Women’s Day, a group of women were groped and harassed in Cairo’s Tahrir Square after marching for social justice. Last week, Amnesty International reported that another group of 18 women who were arrested during protests in Tahrir Square were taken by the military, tortured by electric shocks, subjected to strip searches and given “virginity tests.”
According to an Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights study in 2008, 83 percent of women have been sexually harassed in Egypt, as well as an astounding 98 percent of foreign women living in Cairo. (The study defines sexual harassment as unwanted sexual conduct that results in physical or psychological abuse.) Yet, due to a lack of cultural and legal support, only a small percentage of cases are taken to the police.
Director Mohamed Diab captures this grim reality in his new feature, “Cairo 6,7,8,” showcased in this year’s New Directors/New Films series at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The film is based on real-life experiences of sexual harassment faced by three Egyptian women.
Seba (Nelly Karim) is a wealthy jewelry maker and women’s rights activist who preaches retaliation and self-defense, only to be rejected by her husband after she is brutally harassed by a mob after a sports gathering. Nelly (Nahed El Sebai) is an aspiring stand-up comedian who endures physical harassment at the hands of a stranger and verbal harassment at her job. Fayza (Boshra) is a housewife and the most socially conservative of the three women. She wears the hijab in public, but this doesn’t prevent her from being sexually harassed.
The film, released in Egypt a month before the country’s uprising, comes just two years after Noha Roushdy (on whom the film’s character Nelly was modeled) became the first Egyptian woman to take a sexual harassment case to court and win.
Seen through Diab’s lens, the root of the problem is the physical and psychological abuse that creates a vicious cycle between men and women. Even though Egypt is one of the most progressive countries in the Arab world with regards to women’s rights, Egyptian women are still subject to violence and harassment.
At a screening of the film on March 28 in New York, Diab explained that Egyptian men view the social structure loosely: “It’s a man’s world.”
Unfortunately, this is the world that is passed down through generations. Boys are socialized to repeat the same actions as adult harassers.
Actress Boshra was asked at the screening if the film would have been as successful if it had been created by a woman. She responded, “Often in communities like ours, you need a man to make the first step.”
Diab added, “Many Egyptian men take it very lightly until it [sexual harassment or other women’s issues] affects them personally.”
It took Diab more than a year to complete “Cairo 6, 7, 8.” The film was initially met with resistance in Egypt because sexual harassment – a relatively new term in Egypt that is often viewed as a Western concept – has such negative connotations. Many Egyptians are still in the dark about this issue, Diab said: “50 percent of Egyptian men think this is a complete fabrication. This is a real problem that needs to be solved.”