Egyptian policeman tries to protect female reporter from thugs during protest June 2011 (Mohamed Omar, EPA / Landov)
This week my friend Rabab in Cairo reports that widespread sexual harassment has continued in Egypt since the revolution, despite groups of men forming around females to try to protect them at times, like at a recent demonstration this week.
The US has never been immune to degradation of women either, and comments by elected officials like Rep. Todd Akin (Rep-Kansas) this week about "legitimate rape" and his statement that women rarely get pregnant from rape only show how far our own country has to go. Fortunately, his comments have been repudiated this week by most, including many in his own political party.
But as I head to Egypt in a few weeks to learn more, I am looking for examples of strategies Egyptians are engaging in to try to change all that. This week I found one such group. Its called Harassmap and is an organization that encourages women to immediately report all forms of sexual harassment (even rating the level of attack), and then showing these incidents on a map. In this way, a bright light is put on the extent and severity of the problem. In so doing, the organization hopes it will begin to alert women to high danger spots, help reduce the feeling of resignation that nothing can be done, and help increase reporting and eventual punishment and reduction of the harassment.
It has been often said that "Women hold up half the sky", as Nicholas Kristoff popularized in his compelling book Half the Sky in which he catalogs the countless examples of the essential and equally powerful contribution women make to humankind. Yet its tough to hold up the sky when someone is grabbing at your pants. In fact, men don't stand for it.
And neither will women.
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'Our traditional dress', Kurdish youth tell me.
Last night I had a live video conference with my daughters, Erica and Jenny. Iraq to Seattle, my bedroom to theirs, easier than a phone call, and it’s free. This is the new world of today. Electricity goes off from time to time each day here, there are worries of terrorist attacks in the markets and there are virtually no Americans in the two small towns we visit. One hundred percent Kurds. American, or any other non-Arab/Kurdish face is hard to find anywhere around here. (Military personnel are farther south). But every Kurdish /Iraqi teen worth his salt has a cell phone, peppering each meeting I attend with cell phones going off, and texting going on non-stop. And if you have a computer and internet (common) and a $50 webcam, you’ve got some potentially serious global legs.
The most disconcerting part of being here is the tight security leash we must be on.
‘When you leave here at the MercyCorps offices you must text message the Director to let him know you are leaving”, I tell my daughters on our call. “And then you have to text message him again when you arrive at your destination just a few minutes away to let him know you have arrived safely”.
“Wow, it sounds just like when we lived at home in high school”, Erica exclaims.
Despite the heavy security that can be a real downer, I leave tomorrow with an enormous dose of optimism. The young people I have met in Gaza and Iraq, two of the most war-torn areas of the world in recent years, are filled not with hopelessness and grinding despair, but with hope and enormous energy. They are painting and repairing schools neglected by their governments, doing teach-in’s on democracy, and educating children and teachers about how to dispose of unexploded bombs that still lay about the community. They want to really connect with Americans, and see it as a beacon of hope, of freedom and potential allies to discuss problems they face that are similar. Sometimes it is an unrealistic picture (no poverty, no garbage, no political corruption in America), and sometimes they think “why should Americans even care about them?” I will give you one reason, we could all learn a thing or two from them about hope.
“When we open our eyes, we first smell catastrophe”, Nazim, a local teacher tells me at the end of our training session today. He is twenty five years old and has lived through three wars/invasions. “Our last escape involved my family piling into one car with five other families and racing to the border. I still don’t understand how we all fit.” Yet, despite this, Nazim is daily teaching students the critical importance of talking directly with people from other cultures so they are exposed to new ideas and to take positive, effective local action. “It’s the only way we are going to make this world better for all of us”. And now, for the first time in his history, his students are doing just that.
The internet is a great thing. It can connect families like mine when some member is half-way around the world in a war-zone, to ease any fears and joke about being held hostage as a teen in high school. And it can connect Kurds with Americans with Palestinians with Jews to get to know one another as human beings. That alone won’t solve the nasty problems we now face. But it’s a heck of a start.
Greg Tuke teaches and travels internationally, working with university faculty in India, Indonesia and the MIddle East, sharing strategies for implementing international collaborations within course work. This blog chronicles key experiences and insights about those experiences. All opinions expressed are mine, and represent no other institutional affiliation.