Speculative Data Futures: Would You Report?



2021-05-05 18:36:05 1853 0

CAIRO—At a press conference held earlier today, spokespersons from the Ministries of Social Solidarity and Interior announced their new joint initiative for fighting and overcoming sexual harassment against women as part of the government’s short-term vision for the next 5 years. Developed in cooperation with leading feminist civil society organizations, the initiative, titled Sexual Harassment Ends Today, comes as the latest governmental effort aimed at combatting the country’s high rates of sexual harassment and assault, numbers that put Egypt among the top unsafe places for women worldwide. Sexual Harassment Ends Today aims to reduce incidents of harassment and assault as well as make women feel safer. ‘By allowing them to report individual men or look up their profiles, the initiative gives women the power to take matters into their hands and makes it easier for them to know who they are dealing with, wherever they may be. It also helps to drastically reduce sexual harassment because sexual offenders will think twice for fear of familial, social, and even professional consequences,’ the spokesperson for the Ministry of Interior explained. By encouraging women to report their harassers and incidents of harassment, and then linking these reports to the government’s existing databases, the initiative is able to provide an online database, with profiles for the entire adult population, that is open, searchable and, most importantly, also available as an open dataset to download. Men with less than three reports have their profiles flagged as potentially problematic and are issued an automatic warning; at the third offense, the label ‘harasser’ is attached to their profiles and they are fined EGP5000. Reports of sexual assault are automatically transferred to the attorney general’s office and the offender’s profile is marked as such. In response to a question about the checks in place, he further clarified that there would be mechanisms for filtering through the reports, including background checks on reporters, to ensure the initiative fulfills its role, but is not abused for other motives. ‘I reiterate: it is a program designed to make everyone feel safe.’ While various initiatives over the years have attempted to develop and crowdsource solutions for sexual harassment, including setting up maps to identify hotspots and areas that are particularly unsafe for women, this one is unprecedented in its focus on individuals and how comprehensive it is. The dataset also hopes to encourage further research and the development of more solutions to the issue. Women can file their reports through various means, including a website, a mobile app, and specifically designated kiosks that are rolling out in different areas across the country. While the women’s profiles will display the amount of reports they have sent in, the contents of their reports will remain anonymous. When asked to comment about the initiative earlier, Her Excellency the Minister of Social Solidarity said that she hoped this would make streets friendlier to women. ‘I don’t want to be afraid while I am walking, or even driving, anymore, and I already feel more comfortable knowing I can report anyone who bothers me, that I will be taken seriously and that all men are well aware of that. It gives me a sense of power I have never had.’ For more information about the initiative, or to know more about how to file a report, visit” She turned down the Om Kalthoum song she had playing in the background and put down her coffee. She tried to register all of this, shaking her head as if to organize her thoughts around what she had just read. Sexual harassment was rampant, yes. It had to be addressed, yes. And all the better if this was done at the executive and judicial levels. After all, that was what they had been campaigning and lobbying for since 2011. It had taken the government decades (and numerous high-profile incidents with tourists) to understand, but they had eventually gotten there. Why was she uneasy, then? The whole thing had only gone live 12 hours before and, for all she knew, it could be the next big thing. Was it that it was government-led and operated? They were the ones who would snap pictures, write up descriptions of the men and what they had done and upload them. They would have an outlet, something to lean back on, a threat of last resort, so to speak. Was it how easily accessible it all was, that it was at the tip of anyone’s fingertips? But, again, they had been campaigning for open data for years. Why was she suddenly uneasy when it touched something so close to her heart? She sighed, imagining a reality where she did not have to double and triple check every morning that she had packed pepper spray into her purse, where she would not have to walk towards her apartment building just a little bit faster, a little bit more urgently, as she passed in front of the ahwa (coffee shop) on the corner, where she would not be just slightly anxious even in the safety of her own locked car because the guy in the BMW next to her decided it was fun to trail her for a good hour. What was everyone thinking about this, she wondered. She had been offline and out of touch all day, trying to get some work done, and had only just sat down for some coffee and much-needed reading time when the news notification popped up on her tablet. She imagined it was the talk of the town. Turning her phone on, she saw that she already had 3 message notifications from 3 different people about the announcement. The internet must be going crazy. Sure enough, she only had to log on to her friends’ pages to confirm her suspicions that it was all anyone could talk about. Sherif S. 6.25 pm This is an insult to all men, to have our information up for inspection by everyone AND available for download. What are we, guinea pigs?! Not even criminal records are that open to the public!! If this is how the government thinks it will win the next election, they really need to get their priorities straight! She took an audible deep breath in an effort to not get riled up. Of course, there would be those people. They were the same ones who shouted “not all men” any chance they got. There had been a time when she would passionately respond, either to convince them or put them in their place, but she had long trained herself not to get provoked by these small things. She saw that someone had responded by quoting the spokesperson’s reassuring message about checks and regulations and could not be bothered to read further. She scrolled down. Fareeda N. 4.08 pm This is a GOOD thing. Grow up—just because it is a government initiative doesn’t mean it won’t work. We all talk and talk about sexual harassment, well this is a step in the RIGHT direction. I personally already feel much safer walking the streets. Salma H. 4.12 pm But, @Fareeda, how can you not see that this is just even slightly problematic? All that gathered information and no way for us to know where it’s going or who is using it. I mean, you have to provide ALL your information just to submit a report, from your name and national ID number to your location. This is available to *everyone*. It is basically keeping tabs on us. Fareeda N. 4.13 pm You have to give all that information if you’re filing an official complaint at any police station, anyway. Let’s try and leave the conspiracy theories out of things for once please. And honestly if this is going to stop people bothering me on the street then by all means let them gather (and display and use) all the information they want. Besides, the open data is not going to include any names or personal information, so that information is not available to everyone—it is just statistics about the profiles of who is reporting, and who is being reported. Amira A. 4.15 pm I have to say I agree with @Fareeda. I don’t care who’s organizing this, but I am grateful that someone finally listened to what we go through. Hmmm. She had not realized women would have to give in some information to file the reports. She wondered how many women felt the same way about this, how many did not care who got ahold of their information if it meant reporting the incidents, how many saw no problem with the dataset, as long as their names remained anonymous. She sympathized, she really did. Who could argue against a chance at freedom, finally, with what they went through on a daily basis? Well, some try to, but never mind them for now… It was just that she was not entirely sure if it was as liberating as they made it out to be… But then again, even if it wasn’t, wasn’t it better to have a system, no matter how flawed, than to have nothing at all? She wasn’t sure. Amin Y. 7.45 pm Guys/Girls, I am just noticing this, but what’s the deal with this whole background checks thing? What are they going on about? Soraya T. 7.45 pm It’s obvious, isn’t it? Basically, they’re saying that only nice, well-educated, conforming, rich women can be harassed. Or at least given the right and ability to complain about and report it. The way the whole thing is set up, how they are marketing it, the fact that is online, this is clearly who they’re targeting. F*** this whole “it’s open and accessible” discourse, really. It’s only open and accessible if you have access to these technologies to begin with. It comes as no surprise that they are also monitoring who can report…*rolls my eyes* Amina G. 7.47 pm EXACTLY!!!! I saw that and I was like there is bound to be something about different ‘cultures’ and social understandings or whatever it is they call it. Do we even know what they mean by sexual harassment or assault or any of it?! Ugh, I can’t even understand how some people see this as a good thing! Tarek S. 8.03 pm Tbh tho, I am more concerned about the more explicit limits. This is supposed to be some feminist breakthrough and there is absolutely no protection against abusive husbands or for girls against family members (which does happen) and I guess that also speaks to your point @Amina about how they’re defining it. (There’s also nothing about male survivors, but that’s a whole other can of misogynistic worms.) Amina G. 8.15 pm You wouldn’t be able to report them? Amin Y. 8.17 pm @Amina Nope, you can’t report a family member, and you have to be over 16 to file a report. Otherwise, you have to go through a legal guardian. That’s why I think @Tarek has a point. Even if this is their way of fighting the practice, they have to realize the mindsets haven’t changed. Most girls don’t tell their families because they are afraid of their reactions and, this way, a lot of them won’t report at all. Soraya T. 8.20 pm @Amina, of course, we don’t know how they are defining it. They say they have “consulted with leading feminist groups and activists” but we all know that just means groups already affiliated with them. Otherwise, there would not be all these issues. And that is why the dataset is even more problematic. It is only open and accessible after THEY have decided what constitutes harassment, filtered through the reports, and decided what data to include and by who. Can’t wait to see the groundbreaking research and solutions that will produce… Marwan M. 8.24 pm Come on, you guys, it is called the SHET initiative, after all. What do you expect… That made her laugh despite herself. She heard it in Ahmed Helmy’s voice from his classic Asal Eswed and wondered if that acronym on its own was capable of bringing the whole thing down. Once, not if, Egyptians made the connection, it would be ripe meme material. With all these nuances she kept learning about, however, she would have to look up the initiative’s details in the morning. She kept scrolling. It was interesting to see the different views. Not that the heated online debates were themselves necessarily new, God only knew they had been having enough of them for ages, but she was particularly intrigued to see how people were approaching this. Amr E. 4.30 pm I see some of the points against the new harassment initiative, but I think we need to look at the positive things and what it changes. For example, assaulters don’t get any chances and are reported immediately and directed to the attorney’s office. This is a good thing and will make a difference. Also, the information the initiative will gather does not harm any of the participants because they are anonymous but will help us understand the issue further. Just my two cents on the matter. Soraya T. 8.30 pm What about the limits that @Tarek mentioned on @Amin’s post? Can these women (and men, for that matter) resort to this #shet? (@Marwan, sorry I stole your pun and made it into a hashtag, but someone had to). Also, there are even more problems with the research aspect of it. It is not even about safety or privacy. Since the data is meant to be open and available, how can you not see how any conclusions based on it are bound to be skewed if it has all these flaws to begin with? More people, more women, needed to be involved in the initiative’s design and its key assumptions if they genuinely wanted to address the issue and produce meaningful knowledge about it—if it were to truly be open and inclusive. Otherwise, what is the point, really, besides trying to make themselves look good? Amr E. 9.00 pm I understand where you’re coming from, but my point is that if it changes some things and stops some assaulters, then there are still some good things. I mean, forget about these problems for a second, wouldn’t you use it if a guy bothered you on the street? Wouldn’t you want to get closer to addressing and understanding it even in baby steps? Soraya T. 9.05 pm No, it’s not good, because there is so much that is missing from it and so many people and scenarios that it does not account for. Personally, I am not buying how this is going to radically change our lives and wish everyone would stop hyping it up so much. And, no, I will not use it, because my report means nothing if they have to go through a background check on who I am and who my parents are to see whether they can use it, because if mine is accepted, a girl’s from a poor neighborhood or village prolly won’t be (in the chances that she even has access to the database thing). And because, more likely than not, if the guy turns out to be someone’s son or brother-in-law or if he just knows someone up the ladder somewhere, my report won’t mean #shet. So, no, it brings us no nearer to addressing or understanding anything if the reports/data are manipulated, so to speak. Also, on another note, while I am all for open data (assuming it is), as a woman who has yet to see this safe and secure society, I have to say I am uneasy giving out all my information and having it so out there. Call me paranoid, but even if my name is not publicly accessible, everything else is, and I still do not know who will use this information, or for what…#rantover And on and on it went. From vehement almost blind support to equally heated opposition, everything was on there. It seemed there was nothing else anyone could talk about, whether they were pointing out that men, too, could be harassed and assaulted and that the initiative had completely glossed over that fact, or wondering aloud if it were fair to label men forever or if they should be given a chance to redeem themselves, or even speculating about the many ways in which the produced data could be used, not only for solutions, but for marketing and other purposes. It was too intense and, wide awake as she was after that coffee, she decided she might be better off watching some television. As she browsed through options, though, trying to decide on something to watch, she could not stop her mind from thinking. Would she report…? That was an important question. Equally important, would she really be able to scare potential male vultures by looking them straight in the eye and reaching for her phone? How would the initiative play out in reality, on the streets? Would it prove as effective as its supporters thought? Would the open data truly help provide better understanding and, in turn, more innovative solutions? Maybe it was because it remained completely unimaginable, and almost like something out of a fairytale, to her, but she was still not entirely convinced this was the way to do it. Accessible or not, she could not see how a crowd-sourced online database, or any research it facilitated, could be the solution to a problem that had plagued this society for generations, especially when it came with all these strings and caveats. After all, how open was this open database, really? She was tired. She willed the thoughts out of her head for the moment, pushed them to the sides until the following morning when she could think more clearly about this. For now, she would lose herself in a light comedy…