Last November, Brass Sound Band, a group of young Egyptians who study at Cairo’s Higher Institute for Music, led by Cairo University President Gaber Nassar, participated in a marching parade through Cairo University to promote awareness of sexual harassment and domestic violence.
Cairo University’s Anti-Sexual Harassment Unit chose a marching band to visit students at their faculties rather than trying to gather them in one place. They played an eclectic mix of covers including Fayrouz’s Sahr El Layali, Pharell Williams’ Happy and jazz standards. The idea was to draw students’ attention to members of the unit, who seized the opportunity to spread flyers and signs reading “Together against sexual harassment,” “Violence against women is a crime,” and tell people about the campaign.
Nineteen-year-old political science student Omar Mahdy was on campus and witnessed the parade stop outside his faculty for about 40 minutes, so he decided to listen. Mahdy says he noticed around 100 students dancing and singing with the campaign, and read the signs against sexual harassment.
Despite Mahdy’s engagement with the campaign and his support for promoting social causes through the arts, he felt it was missing music specifically about women or sexual harassment. He only understood the campaign’s aims through the flyers, signs, and the unit’s T-shirts. “I think if a female-only marching band was used, the campaign would have a more empowering message,” he says.
Maha El Said, president of Anti-Sexual Harassment Unit on campus and also a professor of English Literature at the university, tells Mada Masr, “We decided to promote our campaign through a musical parade on campus, where the band spent almost 30 minutes in front of each faculty. That’s when our team distributed flyers and started talking to students about how sexual harassment is defined, how they can report incidents to the university and what policies are in place to tackle it.”
The unit, funded entirely by the university, was originally formed as an initiative in 2015 by campus staff to combat sexual harassment and penalize those who don’t respect moral conduct between students and workers, encourage healthy social behavior, and safeguard victims through legal action and psychological traineeships within the college community. It consists of an executive committee of five members including Said, as well as 40 coordinators, 250 student trainees and 263 volunteering students.
Explaining that on-campus music events tend to be more militaristic or nationalistic in nature and fail to generate much student interaction, Said says the November campaign was more successful because young people were playing music, and it had relevance to the students. She adds that awareness of this sensitive societal issue was effectively raised, not only for students but also to university employees, in a way that encouraged students to interact and ask questions. Said says the campaign encouraged women on campus to report sexual harassment, but she was unable to give a rough estimate of incidents occurring on campus.
“Following the parade, we have received around 300 applications from students who were interested to join the unit, which we considered clear evidence of the success of the musical parade in promoting the campaign,” Said adds.
Selected applicants are now undergoing training sessions on sexual harassment and how to spread awareness among their colleagues. “Before we accept any applicants in the unit, we first explore their views on sexual harassment and how they usually deal with it,” says Rehab Meniem, the unit’s media spokesperson.
Toka Ezz El Din, a mass communications student who joined the unit, tells Mada Masr that her training has included learning what to do if she is sexually harassed either verbally or physically. “Cairo University enrols various students of different backgrounds coming from several governorates, some of whom might not be aware of sexual harassment and its definition so it is essential to teach and give them awareness sessions about it once they join the unit,” says Ezz El Din.
Brass Sound Band was founded last May and consists of 11 Egyptian trumpeters, trombonists, cornet players, saxophonists, and drummers. They agreed to participate in the parade because they believe women should be able to dance publicly without fearing harassment and felt that a parade would defy fears of gatherings, where many women and girls experience sexual harassment.
“We wanted to promote healthy behavior and extract all the negative energy from students through cheerful music,” says Adham Ahmed, Brass Sound Band’s 22-year-old leader. The band created a carnival-oriented atmosphere that easily delivered the campaign’s messages, he adds.
Said says, “Music was chosen between all form of arts for this social cause because it’s a safe form of art and popular among students. Music can be shaped and portrayed in various limitless ways and is able to gather large audiences even when speaking about a controversial issue.”
She adds that the unit has also used other art forms to promote awareness, such as cinema — the unit shows a movie and then discusses it in a seminar, such as one of BuSSy’s projects called “Ehkky.” The unit has also collaborated with BuSSy and the Women’s National Council on several occasions, screening documentaries or short films that have an awareness of women’s rights and reject sexual harassment.
The unit has also conducted puppet shows, bicycle rallies, marathons and theater plays, such as Nada Sabet’s 45, a play about 45-year-old Amal, who wakes up one day questioning her happiness and struggling with both inner conflicts and societal judgments, which she tries to overcome. It has also presented a theater play by the Women’s National Council, Untying the Braids, as well as public seminars to promote their cause. But Said thinks music has been the most successful.
BuSSy co-founder Sondos Shabayek believes art is a good platform to create awareness, more so than using statistics, but says: “It should exclude any direct messages and enforced call for actions or operate as an advocacy tool for social causes because these factors drive audiences away.”
Cairo University’s Anti-Sexual Harassment Unit plans to conduct a seminar on campus and a marathon in Sheikh Zayed campus on March 16, which is Egyptian Women’s Day.