Untold stories of sexual harassment in Egypt’s newsrooms
by Mai Shams El-Din
Yasmine,* an intern at a major Egyptian newspaper went to submit some photos in the photography department, only to find a technician watching a pornographic movie with one of the office assistants. She threw the memory card and ran away.
The next day, she received an email from the technician in her inbox: “He sent a disgusting email — it was enough just to read the subject line. I stopped dealing with this person. In an organization like the one I used to work for, speaking out against sexual harassment won’t lead to any punishment for the harasser, but you will be seen as an improper woman. They won’t care about a ‘troublemaking’ intern,” she says.
After this incident, Yasmine had to send assistants with her photos every time she needed to submit her stories.
Stories like Yasmine’s are typical among Egyptian female journalists, many of whom speak about sexual harassment inside newsrooms. But such talk is often restricted to their own circles, and occurs behind closed doors. Many fear that speaking out against such practices may endanger their future careers, as most Egyptian journalists need to be hired on fixed contracts to join the Journalists Syndicate, which is the only way to secure financial security for many of them.
Others feel “it isn’t worth it,” given the prestige and status of their harassers and the potential smear campaigns against female journalists.
One of these stories went public earlier this month, after the prosecution started investigating an official complaint by journalist Mona Yousry against chief editor of the state-run Rose al-Youssef magazine, Ibrahim Khalil. Yousry accused Khalil of sexually harassing her in his office as she attempted to present story ideas.
Yousry recalls how she tried to apply for work at the publication nine months ago, but didn’t succeed at the time. “Working in this magazine was like a dream for me,” she says. “On July 28, I found a phone call from him, but he told me that he dialed the wrong number. I reminded him of who I was and he said he didn’t remember. I asked him if there were vacancies, and he said to come by.”
She went to his office a couple of days later, on August 1, but Khalil welcomed her too warmly, she says. “When I entered, he hugged and kissed me. It was obviously not welcoming, but very sexual. I pushed him away, especially as I was alone in his office. He calmed me down and talked about promises to hire me on a fixed contract immediately. He went to get us some coffee, and when he came back, he made advances towards me again.” Yousry was frozen by this point, before he tried for the third time. “I was shocked, but finally I managed to run. I was so perplexed and didn’t know what to do,” she says.
Yousry stayed at home for two days, traumatized. On the third day, she received a second phone call from Khalil asking her to attend the weekly news meeting, but she refused. On August 7, Yousry went public about the case and declared on her Facebook account that she had reported him.
According to her lawyer, Michael Raouf, his client was summoned before the prosecution for her testimony, but no official charges were pressed against Khalil. It is not clear yet whether he will be summoned, or if the prosecution will close the case, Raouf says.
Khalil declined to give comments to Mada Masr concerning the case, considering it a public defamation that targets his prestige and has harmed his family. But in remarks to Journalists Against Torture Observatory, Khalil deemed Yousry’s allegations “mere lies” that aim to blackmail him and harm his reputation. He explained that Yousry came to his office for work, “and I was surprised to hear about this rumor. How can goodness be met with evil?”
Khalil claimed that the allegations could be linked to the newspaper’s coverage. “The magazine published a number of stories about corruption cases — maybe one of those affected by our campaigns wanted to take revenge by harming my reputation, I don’t know. My office is open to everyone and busy all the time, so it is very difficult for such a thing to happen,” he said, adding that he would pursue legal action soon.
Yousry says she lost a lot after filing the complaint. “I missed a great opportunity to work in my dream newsroom. I face many pressures from my family to drop the case, everyone looks at me as a troublemaker.”
She was suspended from her work as coordinator in a media institution until investigations into the case are complete, and she has faced pressure to leave her internship in a major state run newspaper, she alleges.
Head of the Journalists Syndicate, Yehia Qallash, says the Syndicate cannot intervene at this point. “The prosecution’s investigations have to end first, and a final ruling should be issued before the Syndicate can take any punitive measures,” he explains.
While Yousry lost her dream job, and has experienced a lot of pressure from family and friends, this is nothing compared to the emotional trauma she went through, she explains: “It is not about me, it is about every woman who has been violated. Our silence about harassment is what enables harassers to continue. This never-ending circle has to stop.”
Layers of harassment: Sources, editors and colleagues
For female journalists, such advances do not only come from chief editors. The circle is much wider, and often includes editors, colleagues, sources, and even the public during fieldwork.
Aliaa* is a young female journalist who had to quit her job in the major newspaper she used to work for after her boss sexually harassed her several times, hiding behind his prestigious reputation and age.
“He used to hug and kiss me every time he saw me. I told him I’m the same age as his grandchildren, but he went too far,” she says. Aliaa recounts how he started to touch her intimately and commented on her clothes.
“I felt physically and psychologically violated,” she says. “I was too scared to talk, because no one would ever believe me, given his age and prestige. I complained to my fiancé, who worked in the same institution, and he encouraged me to take action.”
Fearing talking to him face to face, Aliaa messaged her boss and said that his actions were unacceptable. He called her and promised her he would stop, but on entering the office the following day he hugged and kissed her as usual.
Aliaa had to quit. “I received a phone call from him blaming me for leaving him and getting engaged to my fiancé. He chooses his victims very well, he knew I wouldn’t speak. I learned later that he harassed other colleagues, but none of us have dared to speak out, as we know no one would ever believe us.”
Doaa*, who works in another major newspaper, narrated a similar story. The young journalist alleges that one of her editors used to consistently harass her. “Once he held my shoulder very intimately. In another incident, he jumped on my feet. When I screamed, he asked: Does it hurt?”
Other colleagues at the same newspaper sexually harass Doaa and other journalists on a daily basis, she says. “One of the editors is also known to every female in the newsroom. We never shake hands with him, as he touches them intimately. He can hold my hands for up to 15 minutes.”
But Doaa did not dare report any of these incidents. She wasn’t hired on a fixed contract and had no Journalists Syndicate membership. “Now I’m on a fixed contract and am a syndicate member,” she says. “If I report anyone, I will make a lot of noise. Interns are dealt with as if they are nothing,” she adds.
For journalists, harassment in workspaces is not limited to newsrooms. Hoda,* who works at a major media channel recalls receiving a phone call from one of her sources claiming he had classified information that he wanted to share with her. “But I felt that something was wrong. He started catcalling me, so I had to tell him that a male colleague would be present at the interview. He called me at 2 am asking me to interview him at home, and started describing what he was wearing,” she says.
Hoda terminated the interview and blocked him from her contacts. But she continued to receive threats from him for a very long time, which she says terrified her.
“I don’t care about the classified information, I don’t care about the source, my dignity comes first,” she declares.
The Safe Areas unit head at Harassmap organization, Ahmed Hegab, describes working with media and journalism institutions as some of the most difficult to deal with when it comes to working on the organization’s initiative “Safe Corporates.”
The program, Hegab says, works on creating safe and harassment-free work environments, by training employees to confront sexual harassment. It also helps corporates to formulate clear policies to counter harassment inside workspaces. Harassmap was founded in 2010 and aims to end the social acceptability of sexual harassment in Egypt.
“We usually target corporates and invite them to receive this training and to impose policies for reporting and investigating sexual harassment. If individuals in Egypt have managed to get rid of the social stigma and the taboo around breaking the silence on sexual harassment, corporates and institutions have yet to break the silence barrier,” he surmises.
Hegab explains that he usually finds huge resistance from corporates to speak out against sexual harassment, especially when it comes to news organizations. “There is an obvious lack of understanding and awareness around sexual harassment inside newsrooms.”
New Woman Foundation published a report in March, “Sexual harassment in work spaces,” surveying 58 female workers, most of who said they were sexually harassed in the institutions they worked for. The report also indicated that sexual harassment in the workspace is not related to age, educational level, social status, or dress.
“Bosses are bolder in committing sexual harassment crimes and are the most violent when reacting to women’s resistance to them. Most of the answers pointed out that bosses directly ask for sexual demands, and women are usually subject to pressures if they refuse,” the report reads. “The pressures include: mistreatment, increasing workloads, salary cuts and threats of suspension. Sometimes women are pressured to quit their jobs, especially in the private sector.”
The prevalence of workplace sexual harassment in the private sector is much higher than the public sector, the report discovered.
Hegab explains that the “Safe Corporates” training is for all staff, “from CEOs to office assistants.” They are trained on the definition of sexual harassment, its types and forms. This includes formulating clear policies to report sexual harassment, where investigation is swift and quick.
While Harassmap has already started training with one news organization, there is some resistance. “We are usually faced with denial of sexual harassment,” Hegab says. “We are always told ‘we are all good people and friends and no one does that.’ Harassment is now a bad word that everyone fears inside corporates.”
* All the names of the journalists interviewed have been changed to protect their privacy.
This article was produced as part of the Inclusive Media project. It was originally published on Mada Masr, Aug 26, 2016.
Mai Shams El-Din is an Egyptian journalist based in Cairo, and co-founder of Mada news website. She previously worked as a reporter for Egypt Independent and Daily News Egypt.
Her work as been published in Global Post, The European magazine, Egypt Monocle, BBC World News and Al-Jazeera English.