With viral wave, 2 women in Egypt hope to crowdfund a street harassment documentary

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screengrab from creepers on the bridge

Two intrepid filmmakers want to confront the male gaze with a full-length documentary.

For “Creepers on the Bridge,” filmmaker Colette Ghunim covertly filmed her walk across the Qasr al-Nil bridge in Cairo, Egypt, outfitted with an iPhone. She recorded the reactions of men as she walked alone on a Friday evening. More specifically, she documented their stares. 

It’s a powerful clip that shows the male gaze in slow motion. Since being uploaded to Vimeo on Aug. 28, it’s received more than 1.2 million views, as well as its share of positive and negative comments. 

Twenty-two-year-old Ghunim, who was born and raised in the U.S., and 26-year-old filmmaking partner Tinne Van Loon, who was born in Belgium but lived in the States, will use this clip in an upcoming documentary about street harassment, called The People’s Girls, which follows the stories of three people in Cairo. There’s also a Kickstarter for the film, which has a $25,000 goal, and a Facebook page where women have been sharing their stories of harassment. 

When asked about how they approached the bridge sequence, Van Loon explained Ghunim held the phone “by her mouth with headphones plugged in and pretended to talk on the phone. She pretended to be deep in conversation, looking straight ahead of her. Whenever she felt eyes on her, she turned the phone slightly towards them, without making eye contact. The clip was filmed in a single five-minute walk around sunset, as people often gather on the bridge after the temperature cools down.

“As groups of men often stare together, we decided to slow down the video for viewers to view all their intimidating expressions at once.”

Ghunim said The People’s Girls “will document three people with different views of sexual harassment and their daily lives surrounding the issue”: Esraa, a 26-year-old Egyptian woman “who challenges social norms by performing in storytelling theater pieces about sexual harassment, as well as participating in anti-sexual harassment protests and events”; Abdullah, “a 28-year-old tuk tuk driver from a working class neighborhood in Cairo”; and a third character who is “not confirmed yet, but she is a 30-year-old Egyptian lawyer at a prominent women’s right organization, where she works on a major sexual harassment case.” 

Though the film is focused on street harassment in Cairo and the stories within, Van Loon and Ghunim acknowledge it’s a global issue. 

“Since this video went viral, we’ve had women reach out to us on our Facebook page from countries from all over the world,” Van Loon explained, “from the United States, Italy, Colombia, Norway… They write us that this video showed exactly what it’s like to walk in the streets of their cities as well, and that they are so grateful that somebody finally decided to record this to point out that this is unacceptable.”

“Because we’re both frequently in the street alone, we both experience high levels of stares daily, as well as verbal harassment,” Ghunim added. “It often deters us, like many other women, to walk outside or take public transportation, seeing as we don’t want to deal with the intimidation and anxiety. Everywhere we’ve been in the world—the United States, Latin America, Europe, South Asia—we’ve experienced various levels of sexual harassment.

“The fact is that, in Egypt, every time a woman walks outside, no matter what she’s wearing, a large majority of men stare, unabashedly. They scan her entire body as if she is a mere object, not a valued human being. The high frequency of stares makes it the most common form of sexual harassment, violating women’s ability to feel safe while walking in the streets. While sexual harassment is an issue of epidemic proportions in Egypt, this by no way means that all Egyptian men are harassers, or that somehow this is an Arab or Muslim problem. This is a problem of a patriarchal society, which is unfortunately worldwide. We’ve gotten a lot of hateful comments towards Arabs and Egypt, and we really want to point out that not all men are like this.”

Funding for the film ends Oct. 4. We asked the filmmakers a few more questions about The People’s Girls and the issue of street harassment. 

Have there been incidents in the last year or so that have highlighted the issue of street harassment?

Ghunim: During the celebrations of President Sisi’s inauguration, thousands of people gathered in Tahrir Square. In this large crowd, multiple women were both sexually assaulted and raped by mobs of men. One of these mob assaults was recorded with a mobile and posted online. The video went viral, and President Sisi responded by personally visiting the victim in the hospital, to apologize to her in the name of the country. A new law was enforced against sexual harassment, and the nine perpetrators were sentenced to terms of 20 years to life in prison. Unfortunately, many people believe these sentences not the norm, and rather an exception because the crime happened on such a politically important day.

Were you surprised the “Creepers on the Bridge” clip went viral? Have you gotten responses from women in Cairo?

Van Loon: We were very surprised to see the “Creepers on the Bridge” video go viral. We initially only shared it with our Facebook friends, and they were sharing it like crazy. Our friends at Egyptian Streets reached out to us and asked to write an article about the video. As soon as that article went live, the video started spreading to news sites worldwide! We’re happy to see that many news sites are using this video to start a conversation about sexual harassment in their countries as well. That’s why this video went so viral; women all across the world could relate to this feeling of being on guard in case a man decides to hurt you.

Ghunim: Many Egyptian men and women have been extremely supportive of the project. They feel this is a major issue in Egypt that needs to be addressed, and many women have used our Facebook page as an outlet to share their stories privately, because they often are too afraid to speak out. People from around the world are also engaging in complex discussions on sexual harassment, as well as donating to our Kickstarter campaign to help fund the full documentary. This confirms that the issue resonates beyond just Egypt, even though it is one of the countries most affected. Of course, just as with any controversial issue, the video has sparked heated arguments, bringing the topic of sexual harassment to the forefront of Egyptian social media.

Has sexual harassment in Egypt become more prevalent with the rise of feminism/independence? Has there been a cultural shift?

Van Loon: The 2011 revolution had a big impact on the issue of sexual harassment, both in positive and negative ways. In the years since the revolution, sexual harassment has unfortunately become more widespread, due to the lack of police presence in the streets. This gives harassers a sense of immunity; they can easily get away with it. Luckily, since President Sisi has taken power, the police presence in the streets has increased and more harassers have been brought to justice, though we still have a long way to go.

A lot of Egyptian women have also reached their boiling point in recent years, and, inspired by the revolution, they have become a lot more outspoken. I’m really inspired by them. Many of them even challenge the status quo more than I do. It is their stories that Colette and I are making the focus of our full documentary, The People’s Girls, so that these brave women can inspire women worldwide.

There are several outletslike Stop Street Harassment and Stop Telling Women to Smilethat document and call out street harassers. Do you see this as a positive? Is documenting it a way to stop it?

Ghunim: Women worldwide struggle with inequality at different levels, so unfortunately we think this will be a lifelong struggle, but we are hopeful that the situation will improve. We are hopeful that with more women standing up for their rights, it will create a lasting societal change in their favor.

Of course our “Creepers on the Bridge” video itself will not dramatically change the discussion and law enforcement around this issue in Egypt, but we do plan for the full documentary to have a greater impact locally. For any struggle against a large societal problem, it is imperative that the people working to stop it publicize their struggle in the media, as the media is a very powerful tool to help shape public discussion.

Screengrab via Tinne Van Loon/Vimeo 

IRL
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