11-9-2012By Diana Sayed
Human Rights Defenders Program
Human Rights First is running a series of profiles on human rights defenders we work with in various countries. These profiles help to explain their work, motivations, and challenges.
Rebecca T. Chiao is one of the co-founders of HarassMap, an initiative that uses social media to draw attention to street harassment in Cairo, Egypt and coordinate outreach activities in the streets to encourage bystanders to protect victims. This innovative online tool geolocates sites of harassment anonymously reported via text messages, allowing communities to identify high risk zones ripe for preventative action.
- How did you become an activist?
I started working on the issue of sexual harassment when I was working for an NGO in 2005. I was seeing volunteers, Egyptians and foreigners, coming to the office every day and getting horribly harassed. They would come in tears, sometimes having been attacked just under the office. This made me realize the extent of the problem, and the extent that it also happened to me as well. So even though none of the women’s rights NGOs would officially work on this taboo issue at the time, I decided to work with the volunteers to start dealing with this problem.Sexual harassment is something that affects my life and the life of most women I know from all ages and social backgrounds every day. It limits our movement, our access to work, to political participation, to any life outside our homes –many women I know just chose to stay inside to avoid it. I was tired of hearing people tell me that we as individuals are powerless to make a change in this situation – that we had to wait for the government or the police or an NGO to come in and change things for us – so I gathered together some others who were interested in trying to make a change, and we started HarassMap..We planned HarassMap with four main steps to mobilize people. Firstly, through an anonymous reporting system via Frontline SMS and Ushahidi, Secondly, we send an automated response to every report with information on how to access free services for victims i.e. how to make a police report, legal aid, psychological help, self-defense classes, etc. Thirdly, we map each report online, helping to break the stereotypes that lead to inaction (harassment doesn’t happen in my neighborhood, it only happens to non-veiled girls, it happens in dark streets at night, or by young men who can’t get married – all of these are proven false by our reports). Finally, there is a community outreach program in which 500+ HarassMap volunteers go out once a month to communities all over Egypt to ask people in their neighborhoods with a presence in the street to be active and watchful guardians against harassers.
- Do you see yourself as a Human Rights Defender?
I haven’t really given it a lot of thought. My approach is that I prefer not to use the language of human rights, not that I am against it by any means, but human rights has a negative connotation as it is perceived as a westernconcept so I prefer to not use it. I don’t find it necessary to engage in this debate with my work and what I’m trying to achieve. I try to talk to people in effective ways to take action rather than complicate the issue. Women’s “rights” as a theoretical concept is not as practical or specific as talking directly about “harassment” and how it clashes with traditional Egyptian values, respect and dignity.
- How do you perceive the current situation in Egypt – for women especially?
I am not really engaged in domestic politics, as a foreigner married to an Egyptian, I’m not too involved. It is definitely an exciting and scary time here. Scary because many of the gains in women’s rights are being reconsidered i.e. the divorce laws and female circumcision being reversed, despite the fact that the law was not often implemented anyway.In terms of HarassMap, it is an exciting time. For so long, people told us that individuals can never make a change, that only the government or police can bring change for us. But now, people have stopped waiting for government and police and are becoming activists. People who haven’t traditionally worked for an NGO or in development are now getting out in the streets and trying to make change happen on various social fronts. It has changed the dynamic quite remarkably – there’s a lot of new ideas and enthusiasm by people who aren’t necessarily experts in social movements.
- What do you want to see happen in Egypt – outcome based?
Egypt is so diverse so you can’t really generalize what all women want. In regards to the constitution, laws, political participation, etc the situation is very similar to the U.S. in that different women want different things and there is such diversity in point of views and opinions.HarassMap doesn’t do any direct advocacy work as the laws aren’t enforced consistently; rather, enforcement usually depends on whether or not an individual police knows of or agrees with the law, believes the violation is worth reporting and worth the consequences.Sexual harassment in Egypt at these levels is a new phenomenon and many want to revert back to a time in history when it wasn’t tolerated to the same extent that it is now. In the past, it was socially unacceptable, much in the way stealing is unacceptable here in Egypt now (or the way smoking is unacceptable in the US). We are hoping to bring back this social stigma.I believe there are two forms of sexual harassment that arise from both official and social actors. Those acting in an official capacity include the government, police, military and paid thugs on the street who are state-sponsored agents conducting acts of sexual harassment to keep women out of the public sphere. But probably the most harassment is being done on a daily basis by the general public.In response to the question, why sexual harassment – sexual harassment is a form of violence. Our reports show that there is no link to sexuality – old men harass, young children of 8 or 10 years old harass, it’s not related to sex. Sex is just the tool because it is an extremely sensitive issue that offends women deeply in Egypt. When they want to hurt a man, they might insult his mother or his masculinity – these are the sensitive spots he’s likely to care about. When people insult a woman they target her sexually.
- What risks are posed on your everyday life?
There isn’t a very high violent crime rate like in western countries, although it has increased since the revolution. However, whenever I leave my flat, there is a constant risk of being violated i.e. by threatening sexual words, groping, being stalked sometimes by groups of men, sometimes by people indecently exposing themselves or masturbating, etc. It makes you feel unsafe, especially sincebystanders usually just ignore or make excuses for the harassers rather than help victims.
- What is a normal day in the life of Rebecca Chiao?
Every day is unpredictable. The only common theme is that I have no real social life anymore as I manage the whole HarassMap team and our work. I work from home and run around Cairo having meetings mostly setting up partnerships, giving interviews, and talks etc. Our team has a Google email group that helps us communicate with each other and discuss all our work throughout the day – we probably send each other about 50 or so emails a day. Things are set to improve though as HarassMap has been given a grant for a research project so we have just hired three full-time research staff and we are building towards having a permanent group of about eleven paid staff.