CAIRO (AP) — A group of Egyptian men had a mission for this year’s Eid al-Adha, Islam’s biggest holiday, which began Friday. They wanted to make some effort to stop sexual harassment of women, which in past years has spiked in Cairo during the holiday celebrations with the crowds of rowdy men in the streets.
Their idea was simple: to patrol downtown Cairo and shame men who harass women by cornering them and spray-painting “I’m a harasser” on their backs.
That proved pretty much impossible, however. The small group was outnumbered by boys and men who mocked them, some of them blaming women for bringing harassment by the way they dress.
Gathering on Friday afternoon on Tahrir Square, the epicenter of Egypt’s 2011 revolution, about 20 men — mostly university students — donned neon yellow vests marked “Anti-Harassment.”
They steeled themselves for confrontation with the throngs of young men and boys who had taken to the streets with spending money they received as holiday gifts on the first day of the four-day Eid, or Festival of Sacrifice, celebrated by Muslims worldwide. Many in the crowds were blaring air horns and other holiday noisemakers.
“There’s no solution but grabbing them and trying to stop them,” said organizer Shadi Hussien, 19. “If there were (anti-harassment) laws, we could discuss those. And if the police did their jobs, then we wouldn’t be here.”
Hussien and the group of mostly strangers who he organized through Facebook and Twitter say their effort is a last-ditch attempt at forcing the new Egyptian government to respond to sexual harassment, a reality of daily life for Egyptian women.
Notably, no women showed up to join their group. “No women are coming today, it’s too dangerous,” Hussien said. “They might be attacked.”
The only two women that showed up were Egyptian journalists covering it. “I expect there will be problems today because of this event,” said Aya Dabis of the Egyptian paper The Seventh Day.
In past years, the Eid has seen major instances of harassment, with crowds of young men groping passing women — so heavily that women had to flee into shops, and for days afterward newspapers decried the mob attacks.
Harassment is a constant problem, and has only become more prominent amid Egypt’s revolution, with several instances of crowds attacking women in Tahrir. In June, as women marched through Tahrir Square demanding an end to harassment, a crowd assaulted them, overwhelming their male guardians and molesting several of the female marchers.
On Friday, the anti-harassment campaigners set out, walking toward a bridge normally dotted with young couples enjoying the Nile breeze. On Friday, there were a few families but almost no women walking alone among the crowds.
But the activists became victims of harassment themselves. Hordes of all male onlookers shouted taunts and blew air horns at them. Some of the yellow vest wearers responded, slapping them away and throwing water.
“Harassment happens, why?” said Ahmed Sobhi, 17, standing nearby as the yellow vests and angry onlookers shouted at each other. “There are girls that do this to themselves, they wear jewelry and makeup. What are we supposed to do?”
Ahmed Ashraf, 20, one of the yellow vest wearers, stood on the Qasr el-Nil bridge and grimaced as some of his fellow anti-harassment campaigners ran to chase down someone they suspected of harassment while a cluster of police officers sipped tea and gazed disinterestedly at the scene.
“I see this issue of harassment every day, I finally had to do something” said Ashraf, a mild-mannered engineering student at Cairo University. “I’m just hoping that our idea will inspire some more people to take action.” He politely but repeatedly asked a group of teenagers to move away from The Associated Press reporter interviewing him.
Fellow vest-wearer Ahmed Nassar, 20, said harassment was a cultural problem worsened by the government’s failure to take responsibility for securing the streets so that women can walk safely.
“We try to stop the problem peacefully but the harassers respond with violence, so then we do too,” he said.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.