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HarassMap Asks Egyptian Women to Plot Points of Sexist Behavior Via SMS

Can a new form of social media help combat sexual harassment in a country where leaders deny that harassment is a problem?

HarassMap

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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.”

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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.