Photographer Interviews

Eman Helal on Covering Street Harassment in Egypt

September 20, 2017

By Holly Stuart Hughes

© Eman Helal

Eman Helal’s series “Just Stop” includes pictures showing men harassing women on the street, portraits of women who have survived assault, and images of clothing that victims were wearing when they were attacked. Showing the faces of survivors was an important way to say, “We are not to blame,” she says.

With “Just Stop,” her long-term project about gender-based abuse in Egypt, Cairo photojournalist Eman Helal has tried to depict victims of harassment in a way that counters the common assumption that women are to blame for provoking attacks. She began the project in 2013, after she read a Facebook post by a teenage girl who reported that a man had unzipped her skirt while she was riding the Cairo subway. Esraa, then 15, says she looked around and saw a man grinning at her. She confronted him; he hit her. With the help of another passenger, she hauled the man to a subway security guard, who told Esraa to be thankful nothing worse happened. The guard allowed the man to leave. When she returned to the station with her father, security guards told him to calm him down, and offered him some lemonade.

Helal, who has frequently worked on stories related to women’s rights, tracked down Esraa and her family, and got permission to photograph her. In 2014, when Helal won a scholarship to a World Press Photo multimedia workshop, she produced a multimedia piece that used stills, video and interviews with Esraa to show the incident’s aftermath. Esraa “said teachers blamed her” for the attack, Helal says. When Esraa wrote an essay about sexual harassment for a writing class, her school’s principal threatened to suspend her.

Helal continued to explore the issue, making portraits of women who have dared to go public about their experiences, and documenting incidents of harassment she witnessed on Cairo streets. Helal says her goal is not only to raise awareness about the problem. She also wants to break down the shame and stigma that surrounds women who report abuse.

“They don’t see themselves as the victims. They see themselves as the reason,” she says. Though 99.3 percent of Egyptian women have experienced some form of harassment—from unwanted touching to verbal abuse—according to a UN report, women are viewed as culpable for the attacks. “It’s because of what they wear, because they come home late, or they laughed on the street,” Helal says about excuses made for the abusers.

Helal says, “As an Egyptian woman, I find that I face harassment in public areas that puts me under continual stress.” She has also been criticized for publicizing the epidemic. While covering a women’s protest against sexual harassment, she photographed a young man grabbing his crotch and taunting the demonstrators. The newspaper where she worked refused to publish the photo. “I decided to publish it on Facebook,” she says. “At first people were afraid to share it, then they understood and said: ‘Thank you. Sometimes men do this on the street, and no one talks about it.’” However, she learned that colleagues at the paper were talking behind her back, “saying that I’m not a respectable person because I decided to publish the photo.”

After that, she says, “I focused only on what men do on the streets to women.” Helal went to locations where harassment has occurred, and waited. She photographed men chasing and taunting women wearing all styles of dress: “Some have veils, some do not. Some of them have makeup, some do not. Some wear a dress or trousers,” she notes. “It happens to all women. We understand each other on this.”

She shows how the prevalence of harassment affects every aspect of Egyptian women’s lives. On a crowded subway platform, Helal captured the tension and unease on women’s faces. Women wait in long lines to squeeze into the crowded cars reserved for women only. In one photo, Helal shows a woman at home, getting ready to go out: She looks in her bedroom mirror while holding up a short-sleeved shirt in front of her body. Every time they leave home, Helal notes, Egyptian women have to consider what they’ll wear and what kind of transportation they’ll take. Men, she says, “just put on clothes and go to work.”    

Making portraits of assault survivors was the most delicate and time-consuming part of the project. A few women allowed her to photograph the clothing they were wearing when they were attacked, but asked Helal to withhold their names. Helal decided to seek out women who had publicly reported their experience, and ask them to pose for portraits. “It was easy to do this [project] and not show their faces but I wanted to show their faces, and face the shame, to say: We are not to blame.”

To win their trust, she showed them her work, “and showed that I was respecting them and publishing the work in a respectful way.” Her photo of Yasmine el Baramawy, a musician turned advocate who had been assaulted and kidnapped during a demonstration in Tahrir Square in 2012, shows her looking calm and self-possessed, seated at the edge of her bed. “When women are facing something like that, it’s hard for them to speak immediately. I give them time—to show they are not broken in the pictures.”

After attacks on protesters made headlines internationally, the government of President Abdel Fatah el-Sisi promised stricter penalties on men convicted of sexual assault, but few assailants have been brought to trial. Reporting harassment remains difficult. “You have to have a witness on the street who will say what happened to you and come to the police station,” Helal says.

She has published “Just Stop” in The New York Times Lens Blog, France’s Polka Magazine and via the Arab Documentary Photography Program, but the work has never been published in Egypt. “There are of course people who criticized me for doing this,” she notes. “On social media they say, ‘How much money did these women take to show Egypt is bad?’” Helal is resolute. “I care [more] about making these things stop than how Egypt looks.”

Note: This article is part of a three-part series about photographers portraying trauma without adding to it. Click here to find additional articles from this series.

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