Sexual harassment in Egypt appeared to stall somewhat during the revolution , but as the mood in Tahrir Square swiftly changed from purposeful to revelrous, reports of harassment started to rise again to what were described as “normal levels.” This means, according to the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights, 83 percent of Egyptian women have been harassed, like the female protesters during March 8th’s Million Woman March who were accosted by thugs. But with Lara Logan’s harrowing account from Tahrir putting the issue into international headlines, it’s worth remembering what got so many Egyptians talking about sexual harassment shortly before the protests: Mohamed Diab’s film 678 .
678 , which will be shown in New York on March 26 as part of MoMA’s New Directors/New Films series, follows three Egyptian women, each of whom experiences harassment. Fayza, a veiled government employee, is groped daily on public bus number 678; Seba, a wealthy jewelry designer married to a doctor, is engulfed by the all-male crowd at a soccer game; and Nelly, a young aspiring comedian, is grabbed on the street by a passing truck driver. Each woman reacts differently: Seba separates from her husband, who stews in his own shame over the incident, and starts a support group; Nelly chases down the driver and drags him to the police station, then begins the challenging process of prosecuting a criminal who has both the law and public opinion on his side; Fayza, whose high anxiety has alienated her emotionally and sexually from her husband, becomes her own defender, stabbing guilty men in the groin with a nail file.
Soon the women cross socioeconomic barriers to bond over their common trauma, united against their harassers and the determined but sympathetic male cop set on tracking down the nail file-armed vigilante.
Diab has described 678 as a “campaign against sexual harassment” and it is this activism behind the writing that accounts for the film’s fierceness (and its slightly too-ambitious attempt to swallow the complicated issue whole). Each woman represents a different social sphere, and their interactions reveal their entrenched preconceptions. In one scene, Fayza, who is urged to continue her violence by the other women who see it as an opportunity to combat harassment, breaks down in fear and accuses Seba of encouraging men by not covering her long hair with a veil. Here, Diab skillfully touches upon the complex fabric of blame and guilt that makes every incident of harassment resonate far beyond the scene of the crime.
Since the film’s release in December of last year, countless women have contacted Diab, eager to report their own experiences. It shows just how deaf the Egyptian police are to reports of harassment that a filmmaker would appear as such a reasonable alternative.
It’s important for American viewers to know that, for such a highly dramatic movie, 678 is very lightly fictionalized. Nelly’s character is based on Noha Roshdy, a young Egyptian woman who, in 2008, successfully prosecuted her harasser in a landmark case. The most striking example of the film’s true-to-life plot is the case of Seba, whose fictionalized scene outside a soccer game turned viciously real when the body double standing in for the actress was swept into the crowd and, like her character, sexually assaulted.
Before January 25th, 678 was a way of getting Egyptians to talk about a tough issue; now it is a way to make clear to the rest of the world how the pervasive and complicated problem was a not-so-insignificant glitch in pre-revolutionary Egypt. The women in the film reach their breaking point and choose to risk their own safety to fight their oppressors: These days, a familiar Egyptian dynamic.