A new Egyptian website promises to use social media to combat sexual harassment. But will it work? The newly launched HarassMap just came online this week as a self-proclaimed "system in Egypt for reporting incidences of sexual harassment via SMS messaging."
The smartly designed site has multi-language functionality and sophisticated SMS integration. Users see a map of Cairo, with sexual harassment incidents plotted according to criteria such as "touching," "verbal harassment," and "indecent exposure." Respondees who either SMS or post incidents to the site are sent an autoresponse offering advice and support. However, it is unknown how the masses of Egyptian internet users will react to the software.
HarassMap is operated with the Ushahidi engine, a Kenya-based open-source crowdmapping project (Fast Company has previously highlighted Ushahidi's use in the Kenyan constitutional referendum). SMS integration is provided through FrontlineSMS, a text message system designed for use by NGOs outside of the North America/Europe/Australia/East Asia axis of high-tech nations. FrontlineSMS parses and collates SMS text messages sent to HarassMap, while Ushahidi provides the mapping tech.
HarassMap intends to sustain itself through profits made by SMS messages that sexually harassed women send to them. According to the project's Executive Summary, "it will also generate revenue from the SMS reports, which will be reinvested into making the project sustainable and increasing its reach through marketing and awareness [...] if each of these women [who is sexually harassedin Egypt] sends only one SMS report to HM, revenues are projected at $734,000-$1.2 million. Our goal is to encourage all women to send an SMS each time they are harassed."
According to an interview with Rebecca Chiao of HarassMap in Egyptian newspaper al-Masry al-Youm (Egypt Today), the website will draw attention to the rampant sexual harassment of women in Cairo. Chiao also criticized the unofficial government policy of encouraging women to adopt conservative Muslim standards of dress in response to harassment. A public service announcement by the Egyptian government in early 2010 encouraged women to cover themselves in order to prevent rape. In Chiao's words, "it makes me angry because it is so well designed, but it gives the complete wrong message."
There is widespread public perception among both Egyptians and foreigners that women are frequently harassed in Egypt. The Cairo Metro has women's-only cars. Incidents of mass assault are not unheard of and the more lurid cases frequently make it into the international media. However, Egyptian first lady Suzanne Mubarak still denies sexual harassment is a problem in Egypt.
According to Mubarak—whose husband is Egypt's de-facto autocrat and herself is one of the country's most powerful people on her own—sexual harassment in Egypt is primarily a problem made up by the media and radical Islamists.
Unfortunately, ample evidence exists to suggest that sexual harassment in Egypt is a major issue. A 2008 study by the Egyptian Center for Womens Rights (ECWR), half of all Egyptian women reported being sexually harassed on a daily basis. While the ECWR blames economic decline and the growth of Wahabbi-style Islam for a rise in sexual harassment, even the conservative Muslim dress promoted by the government does not help. More than 72% of Egyptian women who reported sexual harassment were wearing hijab.
Press mentions of HarassMap started before the site even launched, with the Associated Press, The Atlantic, Salon and others running features on the project. Although the website is now online, only one incident has been posted on the site as of 10AM New York time on October 27, 2010.
For HarassMap, the name of the game is obvious: Shaming police and authorities into doing something to prevent sexual harassment in Egyptian public spaces. While Western donors and media have shown great interest in the project, will Egyptian women decide to send a text message each time they are catcalled or inappropriately touched? That, for right now, should be HarassMap's primary concern.