CAIRO — The big screen shows a man eyeing a middle-aged woman on a jam-packed bus and sliding up quietly behind her. Even before his hands reach for her hips, the young women watching in the darkened theater squirm in their seats. They know the offending move all too well.
In overcrowded, male-dominated Cairo, four out of five Egyptian women say they've been brushed, rubbed, squeezed, teased, catcalled, trailed or otherwise treated inappropriately by strange men in public. Now, what experts describe as Egypt's epidemic of sexual harassment is the subject of a new feature film that's sparked debate over an everyday crime long shrouded in silence.
Released last month and inspired by true stories, the film is titled "678," for the number of the bus that one of the main characters rides to work each morning, where she becomes the helpless object of lewd behavior. Writer-director Mohamed Diab said the numerals also signified a problem that was increasing steadily as Egypt confronted a complex mix of social issues: economic stagnation, rising religious conservatism and changing attitudes about women and sex.
In the film, a mob of men assaults a jeweler outside a soccer game; afterward, her husband says he can't bear to look at her. A pretty young woman from a well-to-do family chases frantically after a truck driver who grabbed her breast as he drove past.
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The two victims form an unlikely friendship with the working-class woman on the bus, and together they plot to exact violent revenge on Cairo's men.
After a screening one recent afternoon at a Cairo shopping mall, a gaggle of college-age girls nodded enthusiastically when they were asked whether the stories rang true.
"It's so real. I loved it so much," gushed Nariman Farouk, a 20-year-old fine arts student.
"Every shot is real. Those things happen all the time," Farouk said. They happen so often, in fact, that she's taken to carrying her keys in one fist when she walks through the city, the sharp metal edges ready to strike in case someone tries anything.
Experts say the phenomenon risks pushing women further into the shadows of Egyptian society.
In this proud, polyglot country of more than 80 million people, however, the film also drew criticism.
At least one lawsuit already has been filed against Diab, who's 33, accusing him of inciting women to violence. Another accused him of sullying Egypt's image; that suit was thrown out of court.
"I knew this would happen," said Diab, a screenwriter with several blockbuster films to his credit. "It's creating a huge debate, which is the reason I made the film: to break the silence."
American moviegoers might recall "Disclosure," the 1994 Hollywood film that featured Michael Douglas and Demi Moore in a he-said she-said battle over harassment allegations in a corporate executive suite. In Egypt, sexual harassment is a street-level phenomenon that experts say is rooted in the shrinking public space for women, an idea that "678" drives home in every shot of a bus, market, stadium or theater filled with men.
In 2008, a survey by the Egyptian Center for Women's Rights, an independent advocacy group, revealed a startling statistic: Eighty-three percent of Egyptian women reported that they'd been sexually harassed. A majority of incidents aren't physical, and very few are outright violent. Most happen in a flash, women say: A man grabs you from behind on a busy street and disappears into the crowd, or he lets his hand linger for a moment as he brushes past.
While 53 percent of the men in the survey blamed women for "bringing it on" by wearing provocative clothes, the study showed that most incidents targeted women who were dressed modestly, often wearing the traditional Muslim head covering known as hijab. In the film, harassers equally victimize veiled women and those in Western outfits; one of the characters goes jogging in a sweatsuit through a tony Cairo suburb and elicits catcalls from passing cars.
"When I interviewed girls, I discovered that it doesn't matter who you are, if you look good or not, if you're covered or not," Diab said. "If you're a female, it's going to happen to you."
Experts are divided over the causes. Some see the spread of a more conservative form of Sunni Islam, imported by Egyptians who went to study or work in Persian Gulf countries starting in the 1970s, that relegates women to subordinates and treats sex as taboo.
Others blame President Hosni Mubarak's 30-year stranglehold on the country, which has tightly restricted political speech and used security forces to control dissent rather than promote the law. Chronic underemployment also has forced many men to delay marriage until their 30s or 40s, contributing to sexual frustration because cultural practices frown on sex out of wedlock.
"We don't have personal security. We have political security," said Nehad Abu El Komsan, the chairwoman of the rights group that conducted the survey. "There is no interest if a woman goes to the police station to make a report about harassment. It's become a safe crime. You can commit it once, tens or hundreds of times without any consequences."
Many Egyptian men, however, think that women exaggerate the problem.
"It's not that big a thing. It's definitely not that common," said Mohammed Attef, a 22-year-old musician who said he'd heard of "678" but didn't plan to see it.
"It seems like the media are overinflating the issue. If I ever saw a girl getting harassed, I would definitely step in to stop it."
Diab said this was the reaction he expected from Egyptian men.
"My father, he would take this issue very lightly," he said. "That's why this film needed to be made by a man, because when women say these things they don't have any credibility in Egypt. When men talk about it, the community takes it seriously."
(Special correspondent Miret El Naggar contributed to this article.)
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