Dr. Hoda El Sadda Stands Up to Sexual Harassment

hodasaddaCairo West, 6 March 2013
By Brian Wright
Dr. Hoda El Sadda is a long-standing champion for women’s rights in Egypt and the Arab World, and a professor of English and Comparative Literature at Cairo University. With degrees from both Cairo University and the American University, she taught Comparative Arabic Literature at Manchester University from 2005 to 2011. In the past, she has fought for changes in the country’s marriage laws and is currently the President of the Association of Middle East Women’s Studies and an active member of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party.
CWM: Tell us about your career journey? And what are you working on today?
HS: Aside from my teaching at Cairo University, I am currently a member of a group called Women in Memory. Based in Cairo and formed in 1996, this is a collection of women academics and activists that seek to take a new look at Arab history through the eyes of gender studies. I have always been interested in gender studies and I think that developing a more comprehensive understanding of the role of women is important to having a whole society. 
Your most recent interviews and work have dealt with harassment. Why did you choose to focus on this issue?
Harassment of women in Egypt is a very old issue with its own economic, cultural, and societal reasons. What I am talking about now is something specific: politically-targeted harassment. We first saw this occur on the 25th of May in 2005. There was a group of women protesting against Mubarak’s proposed constitutional amendments when they were attacked by a group of men and sexually harassed. This event has become so important for women’s movements that it is referred to as Black Wednesday. This was the first time women were being targeted at public events, not by random kids, but by paid men who came with orders to attack those women who were leading or participating in protests against the government.
At the end of 2012 and especially after the 25th of January 2013 we have seen a major escalation of these attacks at protests where women are involved. Both these incidents and what happened in the past are clear indicators that people want to shame women, torture them and make them afraid to speak out. This extends to the entire society and the people who are doing this are relying on the silence of all involved.
What makes you believe that this harassment is systematic and strategic?
Unfortunately, one of the major problems that we are facing is that to date not a single criminal has been caught, which indicates that there is something else going on. Also, when you look at the stories of the victims, they are almost completely identical in how the men approached them, circled them, and began harassing them sexually. Finally, the women who are being targeted are not simply those who are marching in protests, but there seems to be a priority to harass those who are organizing and leading the protests first, then start going after the others.
So what do you believe is the solution to this problem?
We now have an unprecedented level of media coverage which is shedding light on the issue, and the number of women who have come forward to tell their stories shows that they are breaking previously strong taboos on sexual violence and raising awareness that there really is a problem. These are the positives. Unfortunately, on the other hand you have really irresponsible statements that come from prominent figures in the government that say that we shouldn’t have been in the square in the first place, or that our clothes are to blame. Just recently, the head of the Human Rights Committee in the Shura Council stated that it was 100% the woman’s fault that she was harassed, and that in the future there should be separate places for women to protest as opposed to men.
After meeting with groups we have decided to begin working on the legal end, filing official complaints with the Ministry of Interior and taking their leaders to court for failing to protect the protestors and failing to do their duty, which is to identify crimes, listen to the victims, and catch the criminals. We all believe that this is the best way to go forward at the moment in terms of real steps. 
In addition, we have to work to change the discourse and start recognizing those who are victims of harassment as truly victims. It is not about what you wear or what political party you belong to, what is happening to you is wrong and it is never justified.
Finally, we have to start labeling harassment as a crime. This is not something light that should be passed off by society. For example, I recently heard a story about a journalist who got on a public bus and was harassed by a man and insisted on dragging him to the police station and filing a report. Along the entire way, every person that she met begged her to let him go, as if she was the oppressor!
What do your children think of the work you do?
I have a son who is 28 and a daughter who is 23. They both support me in what I do and I don’t think that they are too worried about me. They do check up on me a lot, though, just to make sure. Also, my daughter does things that are much more dangerous than what I do, so I think she has a lot more to worry about than me.
Where would you like to see Egyptian women in 5 years?
Before the Revolution the country was like a boiling pot of problems, and once the government collapsed all of these problems spilled over into the open and we are having to deal with them now. This is a good part because recognition of a problem is the first step to solving it; however the process is going to be a hard one. There will be a lot of battles in the future and I think that everyone will make a lot of mistakes along the way, but I am confident that the future will be a better one. In the next period I want to see more awareness, a changing of the discourse, and a true labeling of harassment for what it is and that we should treat it.
What advice do you have for women to become more independent and get involved?
Fortunately in the last few years a number of different organizations have appeared that promote women’s rights and they are all interested in volunteers. Granted, there is a strong Cairo concentration of these groups, but now you can find women’s organizations almost anywhere around the country. If you are a victim, there are support networks out there that can help you, and you are not alone.
Ultimately we have to understand that if you stay at home and let things go then nothing will change. Involvement is the only way that the status of women is going to change and you have to be prepared to do whatever you can to participate.