To be a woman in Egypt is to live with the crushing inevitability of sexual harassment. The magnitude of the problem is epidemic, with 99.3% of Egyptian women having been sexually harassed, according to a 2013 U.N. Women report. It’s a society in which, for half the population, just leaving home can be a daily nightmare.
Cairo-based photojournalist Roger Anis decided to confront the issue by making portraits of women next to the clothes they would wear on the streets, if only they felt safe enough. “I’m not facing harassment myself as a man,” he says, “but when your dear friends are facing it, your girlfriend is facing it, or your mother or sister is facing it, you feel so helpless.”
His diptychs pair horrifying stories of harassment and assault with the dream of basic rights for women, reaching beyond sexism to address intersectional themes of racism, ageism, body image, religious tradition, and even the repression of political dissent. Although these issues aren’t exclusive to women, says Anis, women are more likely to be targeted for other forms of discrimination because of their gender.
One of his subjects said she was spat on for wearing colors under her niqab. Another said she was brutally assaulted by a mob in Tahrir Square in 2012. Still others were made to feel unsafe or ashamed in the clothes that they chose or the skin color, age, or weight that they didn’t. “It’s not just about clothing. It’s the idea that there is no freedom for women in general,” says Anis.
Though the causes of sexual harassment are rooted in systemic gender inequity, and not a woman’s behavior or clothing choices, women often feel desperate to protect themselves from the aggressions of men. It’s a matter of doing whatever they can to feel safer, Anis says, though in practice it doesn’t really help. “For me, clothes have nothing to do with harassment,” says Aleya Adel, who appears in one of Anis’ photos. “You will be harassed no matter what you are wearing.”
What drives men to commit the harassment, says Anis, is a combination of factors including political turmoil, poverty, a low standard of education, and religious restrictions. “There will always be people who consider the harasser as a victim of society,” he says. “Egypt is so conservative. It’s not easy for a man and woman to be friends.” But that, he adds, does not absolve men of the responsibility to control themselves and respect women.
Eman Helal, another of Anis’ subjects and a photojournalist in her own right, has done powerful work on sexual harassment in the past. “My work focuses more on the dangers of sexual harassment and how it can end women’s lives,” she says. “Roger’s project shows the oppression Egyptian women face, and how men can interfere with every single detail of women’s personal lives, down to their clothes.”
A documentary by Tinne van Loon and Colette Ghunim called The People’s Girls is also currently in production. But in-depth projects made by women on sexual harassment in Egypt remain scarce. For many female journalists and photographers, the topic simply hits too close to home.
“Some of my male colleagues blame me for caring so much about this subject, as if it’s not normal to pay attention to it,” says Helal. “They assume my interest comes from being a woman who has been harassed. Yes, of course it’s one reason. It’s our right to walk without fear. But they actually don’t think that what happens to us is sexual harassment at all.”
Anis’ work is not only a man’s recognition of the threats women endure, the higher standards to which they are held, and the simple freedoms they are denied, but also a starting point for men in Egypt—and beyond—to see women through a lens of empathy and respect. Karoline Kamel, Anis’ girlfriend, believes the work is especially powerful because it comes from a male perspective and can set an example.
“In a lot of cases, the burden is on women to defend their own rights, and they are accused of being extreme,” she says. “It is more objective to discuss and present the subject from a man who supports women’s rights.”
Kamel, who appears in the project herself, was crucial in helping Anis find other women willing to open up to a male photographer. Many refused to participate, afraid of having their identities publicized. “We are in a society where it’s not appropriate to talk about out dreams and needs in public,” says Kamel. Those who came forward, she adds, were desperate for society to take notice of their suffering, or hoped the project would embolden other women to speak out.
For Anis, Kamel, and Helal, the fight for women’s rights in Egypt continues to be long and hard. But their closets full of dreams have been opened. “I hope that [Anis’] work can help free women from their fears so they can speak about their problems,” says Helal, “but also convince men not to look at us as just bodies, and treat us like we have minds.”
Roger Anis is a photographer based in Cairo, Egypt.