A conversation with Meltem Arikan, Turkish playwright and author

Meltem Arikan

Meltem Arikan

In the days after the Gezi Park protests, Turkish playwright and author Meltem Arikan found herself at the centre of a government-led hate campaign that left her fearing for her life.

Arikan, now living in the United Kingdom, left Turkey because of the vicious and sustained campaign against her on social media and TV. She was subjected to a continuous barrage of brutal verbal abuse and rape and death threats. The attacks were fronted by Turkish politicians who accused her, and the people behind the production of her play Mi Minor, of being the architects of the Gezi Park demonstrations.  The campaign was targeted and persecutory, “like a witch hunt in the 15th century” and members of the public were encouraged by politicians to create Twitter accounts and join the action against her.

This was not the first time that the government had tried to silence her. Arikan’s 2004 novel Stop Hurting my Flesh tells the story of women’s lives that have been left devastated by experiences of sexual abuse and incest. The novel was banned by the government accusing it of “destroying the Turkish family order, offending the Namus (honour) of the society, arousing sexual desire in the readers and disturbing the order of society by inducing fear within women, by using a feminist approach.”

Arikan was interviewed by Index on Censorship Head of Arts Julia Farrington.

Index: How did censorship of your novel affect you?

Arikan: When you experience censorship or a ban you don’t feel fully comfortable about the things you produce. You always have the feeling of “what’s going to come out of this now?”  I have already discovered that when my work connects with real lives, I get into trouble.

When they banned my novel, I felt so furious, pure fury. Really. And after that I started a lot of campaigns. Before my novel if you said the word “incest” on TV you would be fined. But the act of incest itself was not punished at all.  And you couldn’t open a case on incest because there was no law against incest. They only had child abuse but they are totally different things. My campaigns contributed to the word being accepted, and the law has changed as a result of these campaigns.  Later I was awarded the ‘Freedom of Thought and Speech Award’ by the Turkish Publishers Association. But none of this stopped my fury. And then I understood that people are actually comfortable with the way things are.  And that when I try to talk about something uncomfortable, people think that I am paranoid, or exaggerating so I stopped.  And I started to focus on the world as a whole through social media.

Index: What started your interest in social media?

Arikan: When Wikileaks published the data cables, it shook the male dominated world order. Seeing that world leaders were powerless to stop Wikileaks from fearlessly publishing data cables, excited me very much. Turkish press did not pay enough attention to what was happening around the world. That’s why I started to follow the developments from world press and social media. I started using my Facebook and Twitter accounts more, to inform the people in my country about the happenings. I was not interested in social media as much before, but afterwards I spent most of my time sharing information. I got quite obsessed.  People even wrote tweets to me to say ‘have some sleep, you need to sleep’ because I wanted to be awake when people started tweeting in US due to the time difference.

Index:  How did this time spent on social media influence the writing of Mi Minor?

Arikan: For two years in social media around the time of Arab revolutions, and the Occupy movement, I felt, received and perceived what was happening around the world. I witnessed how social media gave a platform for people to share their personal stories or give information by using Twitter, broadcasting with their mobile phones using Ustream, live-stream when traditional media was silent. After I got involved in social media I didn’t care about individual countries anymore because I came to realize that interactions on social media happen regardless of the borders of distances, languages, nations, religions or ideologies, and this inspired me to create a play. It was all about the situations and events happening all around the world.  Later I shared the script of Mi Minor with people from various countries. A friend from US read my play and said, this is just like US. Then during the rehearsals a friend said that it resembles Korea and another said that it was just like Turkmenistan. This was exactly what I wanted, that it was perceived by people from different countries as their own country.

As a writer it was important to be able to understand what kind of a change was happening and seeing the free flow of information and how people’s perception was changing. During that time I realised we are in a transition period from analogue to the digital world. And I was interested to see how the perception was changing, especially to see where young people’s perception was heading and how it affected the relationship between people and government.

As a woman and writer not just using the social media, but becoming aware of the kind of impact it has had, and using it to develop an art piece to make others aware of the transition we are in – all this has changed my life completely.

Index: In what ways is Mi Minor a ‘social media’ play?

Arikan: Mi Minor was a play that was set in a country called Pinima: freedom in a box deMOCKracy. During the play the audience could choose to play the President’s deMOCKracy game of the or support the Pianist’s rebellion against the system. The Pianist starts reporting all the things that are happening in Pinima through Twitter, which starts a Role Playing Game (RPG) with the audience. Mi Minor was staged as a play where an actual and social media oriented RPG was integrated with the actual performance. It was the first play of its kind in the world.

It was written to be located and performed anywhere in the world and everywhere the show would be live streamed online through Ustream and online audience would influence the action as much as the real live audience.

The actual audience could stand along side the actors, they could use their smart phones during the play to tweet, take photos and share them online in order to show the world what was happening in the fictional country Pinima. At the same time the online audience would do the same by following everything from the Pianist’s Ustream in English, which she starts from the beginning of the play. This created another platform for the actual audience and the online audience to interact with the hashtag #miminor on Twitter. In every performance there were digital actors who would be ready in front of their computers as well as the actual actors. Together they would make the play happen. On every level, the audience was made to make a choice as to which side they were going to be in Mi Minor?

We created a promotional website for Pinima that introduces you to the politics, geography and culture of this small fantasy state. I chose a lot of silly rules from other countries. I researched ridiculous laws around the world, and selected some of them, exaggerated and changed them and put them in the play.

Examples of laws and regulations from Mi Minor: There will no longer be treble sounds and the key of E on the pianos. A masterpiece of design, these brand new pianos will be down to a size that they could be carried in the pockets; President hasn’t slept for 48 hours and he listened to the telephones of people whom he randomly chose. The President declared that this shall be done by him once a week. In his declaration, he underlined that in every country; the telephones are being listened to, however they do it behind closed doors. It’s never announced to the public whose telephones are listened to. Whereas in our country what the President is doing, in the name of democracy and transparency, should be set as an example to the whole world; The president has decided that only two parties will participate in the elections. He is the presidential candidate for both parties; To protect the solidarity and morality of the family, all curtains in homes must be kept closed while having sex at home. Having sex in cars and other conveyances will be a criminal act.  Also from today, bar owners are obliged to provide soup to their customers. Bars that fail to provide soup are hereby prohibited from selling alcoholic beverages; From now on, peacocks will have priority on the roads. To awaken a sleeping polar bear to take its photograph is strictly forbidden, plus, those who disturb frogs and rabbits will be fined.

Index: The play has been translated into English but not yet published.  Can you give us an idea of the story?

Arikan: I really didn’t want to tell a story. With Mi Minor I wanted to create a situation in which people, anywhere in the world, could see what they do when they were given the opportunity to change something – do they get involved or do they keep quiet?

Index: And when you performed it in Istanbul what did the audience do?

Arikan: At the beginning, during the first couple of performances the audience mainly kept back. Later, there were some very active women and young people, high school and university students, who would be against the system in Pinima during the performances. In each play there were also those who chose to support the system and showed their respect and love to the President of Pinima. Audience who are used to conventional theatre chose to sit in the stalls and watch the action. They didn’t get so involved as the others. I must say, that those who are not aware of the digital world couldn’t get properly involved with the play but those who are aware of it enjoyed every minute of the play and took action using their imaginations.

Index: How did the online audience behave, interact?  Did the anonymity and separation made the online audience more or less radical?

Arikan: Using the digital media tools gave the both digital and actual audience another platform to express themselves about what they perceive or experience in the Pinima world during the play. And as far as I observed, the anonymity and separations made them more radical all around the world.

Index: Some pro-government media have claimed that the play was designed as a rehearsal for the demonstrations in Gezi Park.

Arikan: When I read the accusations on some pro-government newspapers and later watched how it was taken to an extreme level on TV programs, I was shocked. In my play my intention was to criticise the patriarchy and perception of the analogue world all around the world. Even though all the countries in the world are being ruled by different leaders, even though it seems like every country has a different system of its own, I believe there is only one domination that exists and that is the Patriarchy. 

When I was researching for Mi Minor [in 2011] I did everything I could so that the play wasn’t associated with Turkey, or the particular situation of Turkish politics, or any other actual country. It was a fictional dystopia. Mi Minor is an absurd play and it is too worrying to see how absurdity can be accused of being responsible for the reality of what happened in Gezi Park.

And the most interestingly worrying is that these accusations are still on-going. I wrote an absurd play and now my life has become more absurd then my play.

Index: One of the icons of the Gezi Park demonstrations was a woman in a red dress and the pianist in the Mi Minor wears a red dress.  And someone took a piano into the Taksim Square.  Is this a coincidence?

Arikan: One of the icons of Gezi Park demonstrations being the woman in red dress and the revolutionary pianist with red dress in my play Mi Minor is a coincidence. When I was writing the play, I was criticized by many for choosing to put a piano at the Pinima square. When they said it would be ridiculous to have a piano at the square, an instrument such as guitar or violin would be much better; I strongly stood against it and refused to change it. During the Gezi Park demonstrations I was surprised to see a piano being brought to the Taksim Square on TV. But then months later I was literally shocked when I saw the picture of another piano in the middle of the protests in Ukraine.

On the other hand Oscar Wilde says, “…life imitates art far more than art imitates life.”

As a woman writer, for three years I tried to understand the transition period from analogue to the digital world and I wrote many articles about this subject. After writing articles about this transition period to digital world, I decided to write a play to convey my vision to society as well. Today I’m seeing how one after the other my predictions in my articles and in my play are coming to life.

When I was writing Mi Minor, I have recognised that the younger generation who are widely perceived to be wasting their time in front of their computers and therefore apolitical, could, if given a platform to express themselves, become political and resist a the oppressions of the analogue system together as women and men. That’s why I created the characters in the play called The Teenagers who joined the pianist in the revolution. During the performances I have witnessed that young people, high school and university students were the most active members of the audience. When I look at what happened during the Gezi Park demonstrations I can clearly see how right I was. Unlike everyone else, I had no difficulty understanding the behaviour of these digital teenagers and young adults who were peacefully resisting the authorities out on the streets and parks as well as social media without any attempt of violence, without any leadership.

Even before writing my play in one of my articles I said,

“…We are in a transition from analogue to the digital world. During this transition the common problematic of all sides of the world, from East to the West, from South to the North, is the concept and perception of freedom in societies.

The West is still being dominated with the data and foundations of the analogue world. The transition from analogue to the digital world does not just involve the technological developments but also involves the change in the perception of people. Even though, the West says, “yes” to this transition on technological developments, -just like the East- it says  “no” in terms of social and psychological developments of this transition…”

Also, at the time I wrote this article, the news about Snowden hadn’t been leaked and the global debates about surveillance hadn’t started yet.

So my question that I would like to see debated: Would you be potentially guilty if you can foresee what could happen in the world?

This article was posted on 7 Jan 2013 at indexoncensorship.org

Belarus: Cultural censorship as state policy

Members of the Belarus Free Theatre in fall 2012

Members of the Belarus Free Theatre in fall 2012


Keeping tight control over every sphere of social life is the general policy of the Belarusian authorities. This is true not only about politics, economy or media; arts and culture face censorship as well.

Music: to “black lists” and back

Rock music has always had social protest at its core. Belarusian state ideologists still keep this idea in mind. Lyrics written in the Belarusian language and popularity among opposition supporters are two features that can ensure a rock band gets in trouble.

The authorities of Belarus are not really inventive and sophisticated in the ways to silence the musicians they consider “harmful”. Unofficial “black lists” of rock bands and singers were introduced; they have not been openly public, but managers of radio stations or concert organisers and promoters are aware of them. No tracks of a “forbidden group” are broadcasted by FM-stations; no club organises a gig of a blacklisted artist, even if they know it will definitely be sold out.

During a press conference in January 2013 President Alexander Lukashenko publically asked the Head of his administration to provide him with this “black list” – suggesting there is not one.

“Believe me, I have never made any orders or requests to create any ‘black lists’ to restrict anyone from singing or dancing here. If someone pays such artists for them to heap dirt upon our country, I wish they sing to those who order such music. But I don’t know about any of these facts,” the country’s ruler told a journalist who asked the question.

“His will to get rid of ‘black lists’ might be genuine. We all got to the point when everybody wants to get rid of these black lists: musicians, audience, officials, even the president himself. But it is not easy to do, because the system is in place, and it is the system of fear that works autonomously; it is installed in the society so strongly that even Lukashenko himself barely controls it,” says Aleh Khamenka, a frontman of a famous Belarusian folk-rock band “Palac”.

He admits the situation changed a bit after the press conference in January. For instance, “Palac” was previously black-listed and had to perform under different names (e.g. “Khamenka and friends”) to be allowed on stage in Belarus; now they can openly organise concerts as “Palac” again.

But the “thaw” for rock musicians in Belarus has not been long. A new Presidential Decree, signed in June 2013, suggested an organiser of any concert must receive a special permission in a local Department of Ideology.

“De-facto, in many regions of the country such permissions were to be obtained even before the decree was signed. Now this method of censorship became law,” says Vital Supranovich, a musical producer.

Cinema “spoilt by censorship”

Production of most films in Belarus is funded by the state. But the question is whether anyone sees them.

“Quite a lot of movies are produced, but have you seen any of them? I doubt it. These movies are dull and not interesting for the audience, they are spoilt by existence of censorship. And state ideologists attempt to censor even films they do not fund, by putting pressure on production companies and trying to influence the content,” says Yury Khashchavatski, a Belarusian director, well-known for his documentaries about President Lukashenko and repressions against political opposition in Belarus.

Direct censorship is ensured by “professional propagandists”, who are appointed to manage cultural institutions. For instance, Uladzimir Zamiatalin, who used to be a chief ideologist of the Presidential Administration, was the CEO of Belarusfilm, the state cinema company of Belarus, for quite a long time.

“If you want to make a movie here, film something with a title like ‘Belarus is a country of true democracy’; thus you will be sure you are allowed to produce it without much interference,” says Khashchavatski.

Censorship goes far beyond production. Belarus has a special list of movies that are banned from distribution in the country. It used to be public, and was posted on the official website of the Ministry of Culture, but was deleted from there afterwards – “not to advertise those movies.” At the time it was public, the list included, for instance, Antichrist by Lars von Trier (that won a prize of the Cannes Film Festival) or movies by Tinto Brass.

Theatre: Online performances vs. censorship

Belarus Free Theatre is another example of how artistic freedom is restricted by the authorities of the country. Police officers are people who never miss its performances in Belarus: not because they are ardent theatre goers, but because they stop actors from performing.

“Every time the Free Theatre stages a play in Belarus, there come the police that stop the play. But this is just a visible part of restrictions; real repressions take place outside the stage. All our actors are fired from state theatres, expelled from universities; almost all of them were detained or arrested. We feel this pressure all the time,” says Nikolay Khalezin, the art director of Belarus Free Theatre.

He believes, the theatre is dangerous for the authorities, because it is independent and pays no attention to state censorship and demands from official propagandists. The price the BFT pays for this artistic freedom is harsh: the audience of their plays in Belarus is very limited; they can only stage small performances in tiny semi-clandestine premises they can find. Two of their new plays, Trash Cuisine and King Lear, that gathered huge audiences abroad, are impossible to stage in Belarus – not only because no theatre allows them in, but also because two of the actors were deported from the country in 2008 and are not allowed in.

“We have found new opportunities to present our work to Belarusian public. During Edinburgh Festival we organised live online broadcast of Trash Cuisine; it was on 22 August and it was Sunday, thus many Belarusians were able to watch our play from home,” says Nikolay Khalezin.

The idea worked. The first broadcast received 6,000 views, 85% of which were from Belarus. State censors in Belarus could do nothing about it.

According to Yury Khashchavatski, art helps to inform and educate people; it promotes real human values, rights and freedom – and this is exactly what irritates the authorities. They prefer ignorant citizens that are easier to rule, and they use censorship to prevent people from thinking and questioning the reality presented by official propaganda.

“Why are the authorities so afraid of independent artists? The answer is quite simple: Art is dangerous for the authoritarian regime, because it turns obedient population into real citizens,” says Khashchavatski.

This article was originally published on 31 Oct 2013 at indexoncensorship.org


Targeting of Ahmadis continues in Pakistan

In May 2010, terrorists attacked two mosques belonging to the Ahmadi community. Ninety-four people were killes and more than 120 were injured. (Photo: Aown Ali / Demotix)

In May 2010, terrorists attacked two mosques belonging to the Ahmadi community. Ninety-four people were killed and more than 120 were injured. (Photo: Aown Ali / Demotix)

As the Muslim festival of Eid ul Adha drew to a close last week, it left a bad taste in the mouth of several Pakistanis when they heard that those belonging to the Ahmadi community were stopped from performing the ritual of animal sacrifice because they are “non-Muslims”.

According to a news report by Express Tribune, police raided a house of an Ahmadi man in Lahore, Punjab, and took him into custody. Police released him only after Ahmadi community elders intervened, giving written assurances that the man will not perform a sacrifice.

“We have slid towards the deep,” said rights activist and filmmaker Feryal Gauhar, quoting Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, blaming the government for not taking action.

“The spiral is rapidly spinning out of control. We are reduced to being passive bystanders to the tragedy that is being played out by forces of obscurantism,” she said.

“I think it’s deplorable and yet another instance of official persecution of the Ahmadis,” said Zohra Yusuf. But she said it was unclear under which law the police took action. “This indicates that intolerance has seeped into the police force, particularly in the Punjab,” she said.

The spokesperson of the Ahmadiyya Jammat in Pakistan, Saleemuddin (who uses his first name) said: “The police should not have given into the pressure of a few hardliners; this only strengthens them further.”

While only two cases surfaced this year, last year, too, a couple of cases were reported. Many fear if not nipped in the bud, this could set precedence for the coming years.

To Pakistani journalist and rights activist Beena Sarwar the episode is reminiscent of Nazi Germany and the persecution the Jews faced. “It goes against the basic tenets of humanity and justice, and the Islamic principle of ‘to you your faith and to me, mine’.”

“Pakistan must, for its own sake, take a firm stand against any such vigilantism and witch-hunting and intrusion into citizens’ personal lives and faith,” Sarwar said.

Every year, Muslims from all over the world gather in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, and perform Haj, between the 8th to the 12th day of the Islamic month of Zil Haj. Among a series of rituals performed that date to the time of Prophet Abraham, is the sacrifice of animals — usually a goat or a sheep (although cows and camels are also slaughtered) and the meat is distributed among relatives and the less fortunate.

“Offering animal sacrifices, particularly on the blessed days of Eid-ul-Adha, is a quintessential Muslim practice that all Muslims deeply cherish. For police to strip Ahmadis of this precious right is a callous and cruel act,” responded Amjad Mahmood Khan, president, Ahmadiyya Muslim Lawyers Association, which is based in the United States, through an email exchange.

“Yes, it is a ritual performed by Muslims, and Ahamdis are not Muslims,” Qari Shabbir Ahmed Usmani, a cleric who lives in Chenab Nagar, Punjab, where 95 percent of its population belong to the Ahmadi faith.

While the Ahmadis, consider themselves Muslims, they believe that Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, a 19th century cleric, “was the messiah promised by God” which is unacceptable to all other Muslim sects.

In 1974, the state of Pakistan declared Ahmadis to be non-Muslims. According to Pakistan’s constitution, they cannot call themselves Muslims, are banned from referring to their places of worship as mosques and cannot sing hymns in praise of the Prophet Muhammad. There are between 2-5 million Ahamdis living in the country.

But Usman, who heads the International Kahtme Naboowat Momin, one of the several religious movements in Pakistan, that aims to protect the sanctity of Prophet Muhammad is not in favour of the banning Ahmadis from performing the sacrifice. “In Chenab Nagar, no Ahmadi was stopped carrying out the sacrifice,” he said.

This was confirmed by Aamer Mahmood, in charge of the press section of the Ahmadiyya Jammat, who lives in Chenab Nagar.

But strong armed tactics to scare the Ahmadis is not restricted to Punjab alone. In September, four Ahmadis were killed in Karachi for their faith, said Mahmood.

In addition, he said, over 60 Khatme-Naboowat Conferences were held on or around September 7 (the day Ahmadis were declared non-Muslims) across Pakistan. Mahmood said a hate campaign forms an integral part of the conferences. The followers are incited to kill Ahmadis as part of Muslim edict.

“Earlier a handful would be held, but this time there was a record number which shows state collusion in stoking anti-Ahmadi sentiment.” he said.

“They are lying,” said Usmani. “We are against every form of violence; they are badmouthing Islam. In fact, had that been the case, do you think there would have been a single Ahmadi still alive in Pakistan?” he said during a phone interview.

“I have before me scores of published press statements and edicts by various Khatme Naboowat leaders from various Urdu newspapers to kill us or openly threatening us to leave Pakistan,” Mahmood countered.

He said he has pamphlets listing the names and addresses of Ahmadi families alongside messages inciting murder.

According to Khan: “The extreme views of a certain militant segment of Pakistan have permeated state institutions and law enforcement. Until and unless the state of Pakistan recognizes that it is only Allah’s place to judge whether someone is a true and righteous Muslim, it will continue down a perilous path towards lawlessness and injustice.”

Gauhar said sadly: “Mohammad Ali Jinnah [the country’s founder] would not own this Pakistan.”

Meanwhile, in the United States, a Congressional-appointed bipartisan federal body yesterday urged President Obama to raise concerns about the “dire religious freedom situation” in Pakistan during their meeting.

“Given that President Obama and Sharif reportedly will be discussing how best to counter violent extremism, we urge the US to incorporate concern about freedom of religion into these conversations,” said Robert George, Chairman of the US Commission of International Religious Freedom.

“To successfully counter violent extremism, Pakistan must have a holistic approach that ensures that perpetrators of violence are jailed, and addresses laws that foster vigilante violence, such as the blasphemy law and anti-Ahmadi laws.

“For the sake of his country, the Prime Minister should be pressed to take concrete action,” George said.

Based on findings of United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), Pakistan represents one of the worst situations in the world for religious freedom, he noted.

“The violence extremists perpetuate threatens all Pakistanis, including Shias, Christians, Ahmadis, and Hindus, as well as those members of the Sunni majority who dare to challenge extremists,” he said.

This article was originally posted on 22 Oct 2013 at indexoncensorship.org

Egyptian activists battle ‘epidemic’ of sexual harassment and violence

Photo: Melody Patry / Index on Censorship

(Photo: Melody Patry / Index on Censorship)

Sexual harassment has been widespread in Egypt for decades but since the January 2011 uprising that toppled former President Hosni Mubarak, the problem has taken on epic proportions becoming what rights activists now describe as “an epidemic”. Not only has there been a dramatic increase in the number of harassment cases reported , but the level of violence too, is unprecedented with mob sexual assaults becoming rampant during street protests.

No fewer than 91 girls and women were reportedly gang raped and sexually assaulted in just four days during mass protests demanding the ouster of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi last July. Rights activists say the number of assault cases could be even higher as there is the possibility that some cases had gone unreported. Most of the attacks occurred in or near Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo where hundreds of thousands of opposition protesters had gathered to demonstrate against the Muslim Brotherhood president and later, to celebrate his downfall. Vicious mobs used metal chains, sticks , blades and knives to attack female protesters despite the presence of volunteer vigilante groups keeping an eye out for harassers.

In response to the surge in harassment, several civil society organisations have sprung up in recent months with the aim of curbing sexual assaults and protecting victims of harassment. One such organisation is the Anti-Sexual Harassment Campaign , an outreach movement set up in November 2012 to keep track of harassment cases and send teams of volunteers to protest sites to intervene in mob assaults. The organisation is just one of several movements monitoring protest sites and offering ‘safety advice’ to women. The emergence of such movements is evidence of the growing unwillingness to tolerate street harassment as public awareness about the problem increases .

Police in Egypt have meanwhile, formed a special unit of female police officers to combat street harassment in particular, and violence against women in general. While the unit is still small in size –consisting only of ten women—rights campaigners believe it is “a step in the right direction.”

“Often women victims of harassment are too ashamed to report incidents of harassment and sexual assault. In some cases , they are afraid of getting blamed”, Azza Kamel , founder and director of women’s rights organisation Appropriate Communication Techniques (ACT), said in an interview. “They may feel more at ease talking to another woman about the issue,” she added. Her organisation has run a hotline for eyewitnesses and women victims to report sexual harassment or assault cases which are known to increase and get more violent during public holidays and religious festivals.

Fatma Khafagy, chairperson of the National Women’s Council ‘s Ombudsman Office meanwhile, lamented that male security officers do not take sexual harassment seriously enough and at times, themselves harass women who come forward to report such incidents.

With a background in psychology, the women police officers have undergone training in communicating, listening and helping to rehabilitate victims of harassment and assault. “We encourage women to speak up and report harassment. They should not blame themselves for causing the harassment and must not hesitate in seeking justice”, said Colonel Manar Mokhtar, one of the officers at the new police unit for combating violence against women. “We also urge them to seek professional counselling that can help them recover from their traumatic experience.”

Victims of harassment often complain of a “culture of impunity” at the state level, saying that perpetrators often go unpunished for their crime. “But that is slowly changing with the growing awareness about the problem,” Khafagy noted.

She acknowledged the pressing and urgent need for legislation to counter the problem, given the surge in violence against women in Egypt, post revolution. A study conducted in April by the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights revealed that 99.3 percent of Egyptian women have experienced some form of sexual harassment.

“In the absence of laws against sexual violence, we can only expect street harassment and sexual assaults to continue unchecked”, argued Khafagy.

A bill on violence against women that was recently drafted by the National Council for Women and was under discussion in the now-disbanded Shura Council, the upper house of parliament has been shelved due to the political instability.

Khafagy and other rights activists however, believe that legislation won’t be enough to tackle what they described as “a social scourge.”

“The answer lies in changing people’s attitudes. Educating women about their rights and getting men to realize the extent of the harm they inflict on the women is the only way that we can change existing behavioural patterns,” insisted Kamel. “But change cannot happen overnight; it takes time.”

For Egypt’s women victims of harassment, it cannot happen fast enough.

This article was originally posted on 17 Sept, 2013