By Osama Diab
Sexual harassment in Egypt is leading to calls for gender segregation. But is hiding women really the solution?
24 April 2010
Gender segregation is increasingly being viewed as a solution to widespread sexual harassment in Egypt. Signs of segregation have been apparent all over the country. In recent years, the government has designated two carriages in each metro train for women. Also, private women-only beaches, coffee shops and restaurants have been created to cater for women who want to remain beyond the reach of curious virile eyes (and sometimes hands).
A study on sexual harassment titled Clouds in Egypt's sky was carried out by the Egyptian Centre for Women's Rights (ECWR) as part of its Safer Streets for Everyone campaign. The study surveyed a total of 1,100 Egyptian and non-Egyptian women. The results were shocking: 83% of Egyptian women and 98% of foreign women in Egypt reported being sexually harassed.
The most recent reaction to this “social cancer” (as it is described by the ECWR) came last month when a Cairo taxi company allocated some of its fleet to female customers with women drivers. There was also a proposal endorsed by the late Grand Imam of al-Azhar to introduce pink taxis driven by women drivers for women passengers.
Some form of segregation has always existed in Egypt in places like government schools, mosques, hairdressers and funerals. However, it was never really as brutal as segregation in Saudi Arabia, where schools and colleges and even private and foreign institutions, such as the British Council are gender-based.
Even on the individual level, women in Saudi Arabia are not allowed to be in the company of non-relative males. A few years ago, a Saudi girl was sentenced to six months in prison and 90 lashes after being gang-raped just for being alone with a non-relative man at the time of her kidnap.
However, in Egypt, segregation is still done voluntarily and it is mostly the woman's choice to stay away from men. It is understandable why women would use their women-only facilities to escape sexual harassment. If I were a woman in Cairo, I would definitely jump in the no-men carriage in the metro instead of rubbing shoulders with men who, at best, are going to check me out from head to toe. But is this really the right way to combat this negative phenomenon?
Gender segregation seems like the easy way out. How would someone harass a woman if she's not there? But an honest approach to the problem is essential, and isolating women would be merely be treating the symptoms, not curing the disease.
There are many reasons behind sexual harassment: poverty, bad education, unemployment, sexual frusturation due to the social unacceptance of premarital sex and the difficulty of marriage due to economic reasons and a patriarchal society where women don't enjoy equal rights just to name a few.
Ahmed Salah, the founder of a campaign called “Respect Yourself”, designed to target sexual harassers, believes that sexual harassment is a form of violence and anger at the current economic and political conditions that men bring against what they perceive as a “weaker” creature.
“People are unemployed, poor, and even if they're not; they still suffer from the country's bad conditions and want to bring their anger against someone, and this someone is the creature they perceive as weaker,” says Ahmed.
Hamdi Abdul Azim, an Egyptian economist, said in a conference last year: “Economic conditions and culture don't allow people to satisfy their sexual needs in a legitimate manner and by mutual consent. Therefore, they sexually harass women in the street because this is where their only interaction with women takes place.”
We should rethink our strategy of fighting sexual harassment because segregation itself is one of the reasons behind it. The more the sight of a woman becomes unusual, the more harassment women will suffer. Additionally, segregation would make women feel more alienated and marginalised in society.
Al-Azhar's approval to have taxis with women drivers might be well-intentioned, but it is policies like this that partly led to the situation we suffer from now. If we isolate females more from society, chances are it will be harder for them to get their voices heard, let alone fight for their rights.
Gender segregation would also increase the communication gap between males and females, creating more social problems such as sexual harassment and domestic violence. Running away from sexual harassment in women-only taxis, beaches, metro carriages and coffee shops might sound like a good short-term solution, but would only lead to more long-term gender-based troubles.
This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited's Comment is Free section on 29 March 2010. Read the related discussion.
Published here with the author's permission. ©Osama Diab. All rights reserved.