The People’s Girls combats Egypt’s sexual harassment epidemic

The People’s Girls – Combating sexual harassment epidemic

Recently, a video of a woman enduring hours of catcalling in New York City went viral. The two-minute clip features a moderately attractive woman wearing jeans and a T-shirt, who is harassed by men more than 100 times as she walks through Manhattan for ten hours. A similar video took the Internet by storm two months earlier, but in Egypt. Creepers on the Bridge showcases what it’s like for a woman to walk by herself down a bustling street in Egypt’s capital Cairo and is part of Tinne Van Loon and Colette Ghunim’s The People’s Girls, a documentary project on sexual harassment in Egypt.

Kickstart success

Tinne & Colette | ©Nabil Khalifa

Tinne & Colette | ©Nabil Khalifa

Initially “Creepers on the Bridge” was made as a teaser video to be included in grant applications for the documentary Tinne and Colette envisioned. However, while they were in the process of applying for grants, the whole thing suddenly blew up, the video went viral, and the ladies decided to make use of this media attention by starting a Kickstarter campaign. Colette: “When the video went viral, we knew we had to start the Kickstarter campaign as soon as possible, as the energy was so high. Because of that, when we first opened it, donations just came floating in during the first four, five days, but then it suddenly stopped.”

At that point the ladies realized that they had to take action and they started a social media campaign to raise awareness about the importance of making the documentary, including the 6 Day Story Countdown, which featured 30-second clips from Egyptians speaking out on the issue. The result? One month, 501 backers, and $27,456, almost $3,000 more than the required amount, the The People’s Girls Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign could not have been any more successful. And now it’s time to make it happen! Shooting is taking place this month and Tinne and Colette are planning to release the documentary in early 2015. The schedule is tight, but doable, especially since the Kickstarter campaign enabled them to raise enough money to work with a production team.

From idea to reality

When asked how the project came about Tinne replied: “I usually do documentary photography work and I was thinking of doing something about sexual harassment, but it’s really difficult to photograph this, because you either have to be on the scene when a really big case of sexual harassment is happening or you end up taking pictures of victims, or survivors, which isn’t really that interesting. So I was doing a lot of research on the issue here [in Egypt] and I found that there aren’t a lot of videos or documentaries about women speaking up about what happened to them personally or what they think the solution or the real problem is […] Getting a normal Egyptian girl’s view on the issue was impossible to find.” Eager to explore the issue further Tinne announced an open call for Egyptian women who wanted to talk about their personal experience with sexual harassment. Although everyone in her environment was sceptical about the idea, saying that no one would respond to the call, Tinne conducted around 25 interviews, one of them with Esraa, now the documentary’s main character.

Tinne: “Esraa was one of the people who came in and she has basically experienced every single form of sexual harassment possible. She is a really strong character, so we decided to change the idea of the documentary from being interview-based to being really a character-driven narrative documentary, so that it will feel more like a film instead of focusing on statistics and experts talking about the issue.”

Global problem

When discussing the reasons for sexual harassment in Egypt Colette said: “The economic situation is a major issue. After the revolution everything just dropped financially, people are not able to find jobs; they are unemployed. Many men are just hanging in the streets instead of working. So in order to feel powerful, in order to feel in charge, they take it out on what they see as a weaker being: women.” However, this does not mean that sexual harassment wasn’t an issue before January 2011 when the Egyptian Revolution broke out. Colette: “From the conversations we’ve had people said yes, they’ve seen it more, but I still think it was already common before.”

The fact is that talking about sexual harassment in Egypt is less of a taboo nowadays, especially since the emergence of numerous anti-harassment initiatives and campaigns, such as Shoft ta7rosh (I saw harassment), a pressure group, founded in September 2012, which works on monitoring and documenting sexual harassment crimes against women. Tinne: “I think after the revolution people experienced it more, they are more exposed to sexual harassment, simply because with the revolution more women also speak up about it, so it’s been a lot more in the news since the revolution.

Still there is no doubt that sexual harassment has been a growing problem in Egypt over the last couple of years, especially in Cairo. According to a 2013 UN study, more than 99% of Egyptian women have suffered from sexual harassment in their lifetime, and about half of all women face harassment on a daily basis. Additionally, the Thomson Reuters Foundation named Egypt the worst country in the Arab world to be a woman. However, as demonstrated by the New York City video, sexual harassment is not just an Egyptian problem. Filmmakers Tinne and Colette therefore stress that the aim of the documentary is not to denigrate Egyptian men, but to call attention to a problem facing women around the globe.

Hopes & aspirations

The young ladies’ aims for the documentary are twofold: within Egypt they hope to get the discussion going, to provide some new perspectives on the issue by looking into the sources of the problem and the ways sexual harassment can be further battled; to the international audience they really want to show the great initiatives that have arisen, the creative ways in which Egyptians are fighting the sexual harassment epidemic, in order to inspire people in other countries facing a similar problem.

al.arte can’t wait to see the final result! We will definitely keep you posted on screening dates and locations once the documentary premieres. For now, we leave you with the teaser.

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