I am currently writing from Washington D.C., where I have spent the week visiting with legislators about an issue dear to my heart. This hands-on experience with our nation’s democratic process has made me reflect on the power of speaking out.
For the Woman Stats Project, one of the many variables we code documents for is: “Societal Engagement with Gender Issues.” We want to find out who’s speaking out, what are they saying, and how are they received. Most frequently, I find heartbreaking information to fill in these datapoints, but every once in a while I come across absolutely courageous individuals who stand up against all odds and make a difference.
Just a few months ago, Noha Rushdi Saleh, a documentary filmmaker in Egypt, was groped by a man who reached out of his truck window to grab her breasts. Such sexual harassment is not unusual, but her response was out of the ordinary. Women in this patriarchal society usually just silently suffer the taunting and groping by strangers because police are indifferent to the issue and relatives fear inviting scandal. But Saleh did not stay silent! After she began screaming out in disgust, the driver of the truck, Sherif Gomaa Gibrial, tried to escape. But, Saleh jumped right on his truck, which was then surrounded by neighbors. The neighbors grabbed the driver and promised Saleh they would beat the man and send him on his way, but this 27-year-old girl wanted justice through the courts. The result? Gibrial was sentenced to three years of hard labor. This landmark case marked the first time in Egypt’s history that a man had gone to jail for groping a woman in public.
This courageous act didn’t just help out a 27 year-old girl; it set the ball in motion. Two weeks after Saleh’s verdict was handed down, four more complaints were filed at the women’s rights center in Cairo. Before this case, many years had passed by without a single filed complaint.
I thought about Saleh’s simple determination to assert her own worth today as I walked the streets of our Nation’s capitol. DC is lined with memorials, buildings, statues, and plaques dedicated to single individuals who spoke up in the face of adversity. I don’t know about you, but I’m inspired.
(Jeffrey Fleishman and Noha El-Hennawy, “Egypt’s Sexually Harassed Women Begin to Speak Out”, Los Angeles Times, 17 DEC 2008.)