Amira Hanafi


from A Dictionary of the Revolution

A Dictionary of the Revolution is a series of 125 texts woven from the voices of nearly two hundred people who were asked to define the evolving language of the Egyptian revolution in 2014. The texts were later translated from their original colloquial Egyptian. The digital publication of the Dictionary can be found at

The first time I was harassed, I was in, like, middle school and I was walking home from school. Maybe I was even in elementary school. I went to a policeman: “Someone touched me! I don’t know who!” I sat and cried that day. After that I got scared when I was walking in the street—really scared.

The street became a ridiculously terrifying thing.

Harassment has been around a long time. It’s been around for a long time. Girls walk in the street and boys harass them.

In general, harassment has existed in Egypt for a long time, like, since I was little. I know it, and I see it happening. My mother told me that they used to use pins on the buses, and that was in the seventies.

In general, harassment exists among all human beings: men and women. There are women harassing men and men harassing women. Basically all human beings, all around the world.

In our community, harassment has different names and terms. There’s harassment that’s sexual harassment, there’s leering, and there’s verbal harassment.

Many years ago, or some years ago, before it was a common expression and used often, harassment meant touching: a person touching a girl’s body. But then the concept evolved, so that just a look, just a word, just the catcall that we have been accustomed to all our lives, for a long, long time—the normal catcall that we always hear in the streets—that’s harassment. I see that as having entered into the realm of harassment.

And there’s also another kind of harassment that nobody talks about at all: women harassing men and boys in public buses. It’s pretty insignificant and we’ve decided to focus on boys harassing girls, but it exists.

Like, we have several kinds. But in Egypt it’s everywhere because we have so much ignorance.

Harassment indicates to me how much people… how much we have a problem as a people, like, as a country.

As I see it, this word should be removed from the law. Harassment: no, don’t mention it. If a girl doesn’t want someone to harass her, she knows how to make sure no one harasses her. I, myself, if I were a girl wearing respectable clothes and acting in a respectable way, no one would ever come near me. Let the father have a look at his daughter or his wife before she goes out; let him tell her whether someone is going to look at her or not. So that girls don’t blame the men! Don’t blame me if I’m walking and I find a woman—I mean sorry and all—a woman wearing something that says to you, “Harass me.”

Do I really know what it feels like to be a girl living in Egypt? There was a time in my life when I was scared of people—I had a kind of terror, like a fear or a phobia, of dealing directly with people. But I grew up. One’s character grows into the world, breaks in, wakes up, and that sort of thing, so ok. That became a memory for me. But the feeling that people up till now… I mean, for a girl to live, pretty much every day, with something like that… Without a doubt, that fear is hidden, and yet inside you there is something frightened, something anxious.

If a girl gets harassed, why is she afraid to go and say that she was harassed, or why is she reluctant to say so? Because her father will blame her; her mother will blame her; the people around her will blame her. “No, it’s your fault because of your clothes.” — “It’s your fault because you were walking the wrong way; you act wrong in the street. You don’t walk the right way. You don’t look straight ahead and head where you’re going.” All of that is blaming her, so she’ll endure the harassment and stay silent. Then, there are girls for whom that turns into a psychological thing, like, “I’m afraid.” Inside, it turns into fear and lack of security, and when she’s walking in the street she’s terrified.

It’s an obscene level of violence. There’s a true exclusion. You plant a seed of real terror in the person in front of you. It’s like, for instance, a person who experiences a kind of torture; a man who is sexually tortured at a precinct, something like that. Something inside you breaks. Maybe he’s physically ok, but inside he is… destroyed. You’re not hurting a person on the level of the body: beating him, breaking his bones, so that ultimately he can go recover and get well. No, you hurt him psychologically, and then the person has no trust at all in anything after that. It’s difficult for him to return to the state he was in before something like that happened to him. And ninety percent, or more than ninety percent of girls have experienced something like that. Because of that, we… the psychology of girls isn’t in the best state. Because of that, three-quarters, or like, the majority of girls are terrified. They are in a state of fear. Justified fear, of course.

You are doing an injustice, an injustice to boys, I swear to God! There are a lot of girls who harass boys. Not me specifically, I’m talking about a general category.

There was a well-known incident in the nineties—an incident of rape in Attaba Square in a bus, in a crowd, in the midst of people. In the nineties, they used to say that it was an isolated incident—that there was a direct relationship between the victim and the perpetrator, that he was her fiancée and I don’t know what else, and she broke the engagement so he wanted to hurt her. But at the time, I thought maybe there wasn’t a relationship between them at all, and that the media or society tried to fabricate a relationship, to change it from a public issue to a private issue.

You’ve got harassment, and you’ve got mob attacks, and you’ve got rape… and you’re still debating about whether it’s happening or it isn’t happening? And you’re still saying that you can’t say that a woman was raped, and that it was an incident of harassment?

Harassment really existed, but people weren’t talking about it much. So what happened is that people started talking about it a lot, and that’s something. It’s a step towards our being able to remedy a problem like that.

A while ago, before the revolution, people would confront the boys and hold them back: “Don’t do that sort of thing, it’s shameful,” and I don’t know what else. You were able to get your rights. Now, it’s widespread, and people stay silent and no one talks about it. And even when you catch a harasser, they lead you away from him and say, “Just leave him alone, don’t take him to the precinct,” and stuff like that. The role of the police isn’t strong anymore. So, if I go to the police, or if I go to people and say to them, “I want to go to the police because of what happened,” they’ll say to me, “There are more important things.” They don’t have time for things like that, and they won’t do anything.

The time I felt the most safe from harassment was in the days of the sit-ins. I felt like the men and the youth were making a wall around the women, so that they’d be able to comfortably move around and at the same time no one would bother them, no one disreputable would harass them. They really respected the girl, they really respected the woman, like, she’s a cut above the rest and they have to protect her. If a woman passed, they’d make room for her. Of course, that’s something we don’t see in the street.

There were groups of youth with a purpose who went out at the beginning of the revolution, both young men and young women. All of them were youth, under the banner of youth. There wasn’t a big distinction between girl and boy, and everyone knew their role. The girl knew her role in the tents, in medical relief, in securing the entrances. There was an integration of roles. And girls chanted like boys; there was no difference. Girls got killed like boys; there was no difference. There was sublimity. A spiritual and moral sublimity for the purpose that you’re working on: a state in which justice prevails, free of discrimination; freedom, equality; and all of those beautiful, noble values that the youth dreamed of.

In the eighteen days, there was no one harassing, and young men sat with girls and everything was just perfect. Everyone was respectful.

Why wasn’t there any harassment in Tahrir Square in the time of the revolution? Because we dealt with girls who were with us in the Square as our sisters. No, not as our sisters—as our brothers.

When, after the revolution, they wanted people to go back home again, and for no one to come back to the Square and that kind of thing, they intentionally sent people out to harass the girls, so the girl would be scared for herself and not go out. And that was an intentional thing.

Harassment is an old Egyptian thing and all that, but at times it’s a tactic for something political. Like, for example, in the 2010 elections, when for the first time… on the first day, when girls went out to the elections, they ended up beaten by men and there was a huge issue. How can men go out and beat up girls and tear off their clothes and harass them? No big deal. It happened in a lot of situations: in the time of, what do you call it, SCAF, Mohamed Mahmoud… and it happened in the time of the Muslim Brotherhood. It became a thing you can regularly use. It’s part of our nature as Egyptians.

To be accurate, it was a game they played with the people, so that they could trick people. They’d say, “People went out and harassed girls.” I mean, it didn’t have to be girls, they could harass anyone: a little kid. In any case, they wanted to ruin the day for people. They wanted to spoil their happiness.

How much the Square changed. How much the place where I lived and experienced all these positive things—community, people, bravery, fear… Suddenly, the Square became a frightening place, an upsetting place. And suddenly it was… I mean, harassment is like a tear gas bomb. It’s a thing used to frighten us, to stop us, to tear us apart. I mean, before that when a tear gas bomb was fired, we would all run—man, woman, child, Sheikh, Christian, whatever. We would all run. Now it was you, just you, because you have tits and ass and hair, because you have a vagina, just that. That violence is against you alone.

Harassment was happening to the point that a soldier who was standing and protecting the demonstration, or guarding the Square or whatever… if a girl passed him, he would catcall her.

The Square itself was different. I was anxious and uncomfortable, the total opposite of all the nice things I loved in the Square. I couldn’t feel any of it. And I hate that that is the last memory I have of the Square. Now it’s become something like, like… you know when you eat some really nice food, and the last bite is something really bad?

The idea of big gatherings: harassment was something essential happening in them. There was a very well known incident that happened outside the cinema on Eid, before the revolution by a year or two. That was always happening in big gatherings.

After Amr Mostafa and Talaat Zakaria and those people started saying that the kids in Tahrir Square were having sex, the kids that are… the ones who’re called what now, sees kids, sarsageya kids, shaneeba kids… they went and were like, “Yeah, there’s harassment and everyone’s ok with it.” Basically, they’re already sexually frustrated because of this country, because of what’s happening in this country, or whatever, from El Sobky or whoever’s in those films that they’re releasing, those dirty films they’re making. Those guys are sexually frustrated, so they go out and say, “We’re going to Tahrir Square where there’s harassment, and we’re gonna go to places where there are crowds and harass, and no one will say anything to us.”

There’s a difference between the protests that were happening and the ones that are happening now. The difference is that most of the groups that are going out now are summoned. They’re summoned through television, or by felool [remnants of the old regime], through loudspeakers that pass through the streets, making people feel like there are carnivals happening in Tahrir. And that, for sure, makes the whole thing lack gravity. It gives it more of a sense of celebration. The girl who’s going now is going to party, so she’s concerned with her clothes, concerned with her appearance, concerned with her whole look. If we recognize that harassment is already present in the culture of Egyptians, in general… it’s a virus. It enters a place like that, where the girl is dancing like it’s the end of… like they are unveiled dancers, and the progression is normal, for sure. It’s easy for him to start harassing with his tongue, and then to harass by his proximity, and then to harass with his hand, and then to harass by his gaze. The harassment comes from the absence, in the protests… from the lack of gravity of the situation.

Do they imagine that the Square is an entity outside of Egypt, where strange creatures gather who have nothing to do with anything? That there are bohemian people going out to the Square, doing bad things, so anyone who goes there should endure? Endure harassment, endure beating, endure murder, endure anything? And that’s what people were saying: “Why did she go there?” She should endure. — “Why did she go to the Square?” She should endure the harassment that happens to her. — “What brought him there?” He should endure being shot with a gun. — “Why did he go there?” He should endure being arrested, and beaten, and tortured.

Any issue that comes up in our society now, we deal with it all wrong. The problem of harassment is like the drug problem, like any problem in our community—we approach it badly. Even the media deals with it all wrong.

For example, there was an incident: the situation where the girl was beaten at the Council of Ministers sit-in. Putting aside the situation itself, the justifications that were given, the words that were pronounced, the way the situation was dealt with was really bad. Even the sheikhs came out, the ones who are supposedly religious men—at the time, they put aside the very fact that the girl was beaten and said, “What brought her there? Why was she there in the first place? And what was she wearing?” and I don’t know what else. Obviously, they dealt with the situation in a very erroneous way. You’re in a society with a level of ignorance that’s not negligible, so when people start saying something like that—“Why did the girl go there?”—it’s a justification. That way you’re… it’s like you’re encouraging that something like that will happen!

There has to be honesty. Honesty. Is this problem really because the girl’s wearing whatever, or is the reason that the boy wasn’t raised well, or is the reason that the two of them are both contributing?

From my perspective, harassment isn’t shameful for the boy or shameful for the girl. Basically, it’s that I’m sitting around unemployed! What do you expect me to do? I’m either gonna steal, or I’m gonna embezzle, or I’ll drink, or I’ll harass, or I’ll disturb all of God’s creation.

The idea is that the revolution brings about change—change in the conditions of the youth. They will have interests, they will have work, they will work and there will be… they won’t be unemployed. They will have hope that they can get married. It won’t be that the young man knows that there is no hope for him to marry, or to make a family, or to do anything with his life, so he harasses! No… the idea is that there must be a revolution… a revolution. Like we said at the beginning: bread, freedom, social justice. When those things exist and are realized, we won’t see these things, these things that are happening. There won’t be harassment.

“The young men are unwell.” — “The young men are unwell.” That’s always what we hear every time, and we never hear anything else. And the girls are always blamed.

I see that the absence of law plays a role. That’s one of the reasons for harassment. Because the law says that you have to bring two witnesses, and so on. That means that if someone harasses a girl when he’s walking alone in the street with her, it’s alright—there’s no problem at all. Of course, the absence of security. Certainly all that exists right now is just a show and nothing more.

There is no straightforward law that criminalizes harassment. There might be… I understand there is a law that could be used, or a fragment of legislation, a binding fragment… but unfortunately, from what I understood from talking with a lawyer, it isn’t enforced.

The harasser: who is he exactly anyway? He’s a moronic guy, empty, maybe sitting around bored with his friends. He’s someone who forces his power on you, or his strength on you. What does that mean? Like, what kind of girl are you going to harass? A girl who’s afraid of you; a girl who’s doing something that puts her in a weak position. I mean, if a girl is wearing something short, if she’s doing something that differs from what the rest of society is doing, the society itself looks at her as ridiculous. So he thinks of her as in a position lower than him.

Harassment won’t end in Egypt, in my opinion, until there are men, and those men have machismo and are real men. And it won’t necessarily be that as long as she’s someone I don’t know, that I’m not related to, I’m allowed to look at her or touch her.

Look man, now there isn’t even that bit that says I listen to my dad because he’s my dad. I mean, they’re cursing their dads, they curse their moms. No one is close to God, especially when their mom and dad aren’t. When the dad doesn’t know God and he doesn’t pray the mandatory prayers, and he’s just sitting at the coffee shop playing with this guy, talking to that guy, and hanging with this girl—look and see how the kid’s gonna turn out! Of course he’ll turn out like his dad.

Of course, morals aren’t just for boys; they’re for boys and girls. I mean, you see trashy clothes now, you see things you wouldn’t believe, for real! I mean, you… I swear to God I’m repulsed by what I see around. Real trash, but God help them, God help the boys and their families, all of them, bring them closer to Him. I imagine if those boys started to notice God, I swear to God they’d be afraid to do anything like that. They’d shy away from it. God help us and help them.

People understood freedom wrong. There’s a hair’s breadth… a hair’s breadth between freedom, and filth and boorishness. I want people to understand that. Like for instance there’s a girl who says, “It’s personal freedom for me to wearing leggings and a t-shirt,” and the t-shirt is practically above her belly button. This was someone who was essentially walking around respectably, afraid that someone would talk about her. But after the revolution, freedom got understood completely wrong. And by the way, that’s where harassment comes from. That’s why it has increased.

We’re supposed to live free in this country and wear what we want! It shouldn’t be that I walk in the street wearing something long and I’m afraid, or wearing something short and I’m still afraid—wearing a headscarf and I’m afraid, without a headscarf and I’m afraid. That way, it’s just better if I stay home. I’d prefer to just stay home. And I won’t go to a protest, and I won’t demand my rights, in order to avoid the guys that are harassing me. We demand that we walk in the street freely, just like the guys who got their freedom in the street. We want to get our freedom, too. We’ll wear what we want, we’ll walk where we want, and the guys will take care of us. Because we’re in a country that is supposedly a democracy.

All of this, to me, means one thing: that what is happening now, everything is because of something called a State, and it doesn’t have anything to do with the fact that there are people living with psychological damage that will take them ten years to recover from. So, I—with the terms, with the words, with the personal relationship to matters, and the public relationships to them—I’m unable to understand how there is a relationship between that and whether or not there is a State.

We have to know that harassment is a phenomenon related to all the problems in our society. It’s related to our upbringing, it’s related to economic conditions, it’s related to social conditions, it’s related to the educational system that we have—it’s related to everything. The phenomenon of harassment is like every other ugly phenomenon in Egyptian society, in that we cannot separate it from other issues. Let’s not talk not about who’s the reason for harassment, the girl or the boy. Let’s talk about it as part of the issues we have altogether, which cannot be separated.

Recently, they made a law, I’m not sure… harassment laws. That’s something really great. But I want us as a community to reach the point of progress where I myself don’t make these mistakes. Of course, we aren’t in heaven, we’re on Earth and all that, but we want to get to that point, where we ourselves don’t do it. You get it?

Amira Hanafi is a writer and artist who assembles multivocal collections of material connected to particular histories. She presents compositions from her research as digital and print publications, performances, and installations, most often working in multiple media within each project. Her work has been exhibited internationally, most recently at Spazju Kreattiv in Valetta, Malta, at The Lisbon Summer School for the Study of Culture in Portugal, and at Flux Factory in Queens, New York. Her texts have appeared in Index on CensorshipIbraazAmerican Letters & CommentaryMatrixMakhzin, and Fence, among others. She is the author of Forgery (Green Lantern Press, 2011), Minced English (print-on-demand, 2010), and a number of limited edition artist’s books. Her work has been supported by the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture, commissioned by Rhizome, and awarded with the Artraker Award for Changing the Narrative in 2017. Born in the US, Hanafi has lived and worked in Cairo since 2010.