Sexual harassment, Silent revolutions and Ushahidi: Harassmap Egypt

Harassmap is an organisation and a map. Both born out of the need to respond to, fight and end the social acceptability of sexual harassment in Egypt. Founded by Rebecca Chiao, it sought to create a grassroots movement to report cases of sexual harassment in the country. Originally created as a website and an organisation, Harassmap developed into a map in 2010. In this embodiment, the map was based on an open source platform called Ushahidi, which allows real time reporting through a mashup of Google Maps, SMS text messages, mobile apps and an online public noticeboard.

Harassmap is built on Google Maps and works via Google Maps API, coded in JavaScript and XML. Through the images, maps are enriched by location coordinates and metadata, making them very flexible and highly customisable services. The site, available in English and in Arabic, has been defined as “an interactive tool” whose aim is to “crowdsource harassment”, or to report and share personal stories of sexual harassment and assault in Egypt. Women and men who have been sexually harassed can report their experiences posting on the website, sending an SMS message or email and, with the advent of social networking sites, information can now be added in real time via Twitter and Facebook. These stories are then checked out by a group of volunteers who attest their veracity, and ensure that the report is represented correctly on the map. Additionally, the victim – that remains anonymous on the map and whose name is only shared with the police – is referred to organizations that offer legal support as well as psychological and medical assistance.

The story emerges through personal and anonymous reports; at the same time, it becomes a visual market, or ‘red dot’ as it is referred to within Harassmap, similar to those found on Google Maps to specify a geographical location. In traditional mapping, the pointer represents a static location and symbolises directionality (from A to B). The many layers that combined create the map are specifically thought out and implemented to help a user find a place, get directions, check route availability, and in some cases get GPS navigation to their destination.

Harassmap redefines all this: the pointer is an algorithmic formulation and translation of a personal story while the location is nothing more that the spot where the event took place. This results in an aggregate of ‘red dots’ that usually become hot spots that women should avoid and which the police end up patrolling with more frequency. Harassmap is more than a map, it is a reporting system and a way of increasing awareness about sexual harassment and a way to chase for policies, police intervention and tried to persuade bystanders to speak up and report cases of harassment. In this sense, it not only documents incidents of harassment, but it also serves as a bulletin of hot spots that women should avoid.

Harassmap also puts sexual harassment in the spotlight by promoting community engagement activities to fight a practice that would otherwise be a taboo. It also reviews and regenerates the idea of crowdsourcing and the publics that form a grassroots movement because the map brings us to ask the question: who is the public? Is it made by people or by the stories? Following either case, the question then becomes what does crowdsourced mean and how is Harassmap a grassroots movement?

As it can be seen, the questions that Harassmap raises are multiple and pertain to three different dimensions: the social dimension of acceptability of sexual harassment and women’s blaming; crowdsourcing and grass root movements; and the role played by data and their ways of making an issue emerge. [My chapter in Cambridge Scholar Series in Middle East and Gender Studies, awaiting publication]


Harassmap website:


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