By Khaled Diab
Egyptian women have broken their silence on sexual harassment and are demanding the right to go out in public unpestered.
The harassment of women on Egypt's streets has long been ignored as an ugly fact of modern life. Whether on their way to work, study or play, millions of women are pestered verbally. Of course, harassment is a challenge everywhere, as recent debates on CiF have revealed. However, there is hardly a woman in Egypt I know who has not been on the receiving end of unwanted male attention.
To prove how widespread this phenomenon is, the Egyptian Centre for Women's Rights (ECWR) recently conducted a survey of hundred of Egyptian and foreign women of all backgrounds. Shockingly, 84.5% of them said that they had experienced some form of sexual harassment, with most reporting that they were bothered by men every day.
By highlighting the sheer magnitude of the crisis, the ECWR has managed to give massive new momentum to its ‘Making the streets safe for everyone' campaign. “We have been running [our] campaign since 2005… When we started, we couldn't even say the words sexual harassment,” the ECWR's Rebecca Chiao said.
As a sign of the shifting tide, the group has just released a number of radio spots by leading female and male celebrities aimed at encouraging women to speak out and embarrassing men to “respect themselves”.
One reason for women's silence has been the profound sense of shame they feel when harassed. An Egyptian journalist Mona Eltahawy decided to break the taboo and tell of her own experiences, in a leading independent Egyptian newspaper, al-Masry al-Youm.
In her article, she recounts some of the nastier incidents she has experienced, including men groping her and exposing themselves. “I learned to push and punch those whose hands thought my body was fair game, but I never found anything to soothe the burning violation,” she confesses.
My brother, Osama, who is preparing a special in-depth feature on the issue, calls harassment “the tolerated crime” because “the majority of Egyptian men believe that women find being verbally harassed flattering”, even though millions of them disapprove of it.
While the proper Arabic word for harassment is ‘tahroush', in the popular vernacular, it goes by the much more light-hearted term ‘mu'aksa' which means ‘teasing'. And a lot of the harassment is relatively harmless, ranging from passing and unimaginative expressions of admiration along the lines of “Hello beautiful!” to humorous banter and even lyrical poetry, and some of it may actually be quite charming.
But the sheer intensity of the onslaught must make going out for many women feel like psychological and emotional attrition. When you add to that the occasional fondling hand and graphic sexual invitation, then it becomes intolerable.
There is a widely held belief that women somehow “ask for it”. In fact, in response to ECWR's campaign, an anonymous viral campaign has been calling on Egyptian women to “protect themselves” with a hijab, comparing a scarfless woman to an uncovered lollipop attracting flies. It's hard to decide which is more insulting: men as insects or women as boiled sweets.
Perhaps certain nightlife ‘hot spots', where beautiful young women literally stop the traffic, attract a greater concentration of pests, but the ECWR study found no real correlation between dress and attention, as three-quarters of the women who complained of harassment covered their heads. “I wore the hijab for over nine years,” stresses Eltahawy, “and I never experienced more harassment than during that time.”
A number of recent extreme incidents have sparked public outrage. In 2005, women, including a few I know personally, at a pro-democracy demonstration complained of being manhandled, groped and verbally abused by security forces.
One phenomenon that has particularly shocked is the growing number of serious incidents in which passers-by fail to intervene. In a society which prides itself on its safety founded on a strong sense of community and an attitude of collective intervention, such inaction provokes widespread public indignation.
On one reported occasion, a woman was attacked by 16 men on a busy street and no one did anything until a courageous taxi driver leapt out of his cab, armed with nothing but his belt, and proceeded to beat them off.
This incident prompted Kelemetna, an Egyptian magazine targeted at young people, to launch a campaign focusing on the perpetrators. Under the slogan, “Respect yourself: Egypt still has decent men”, the initiative has mobilised groups of young male and female volunteers to tour the streets of Cairo and talk directly to men and women about the issue of harassment, as well as to confront harassers.
”We want to tell the harasser to respect himself and that he will find a man to stand up to him on the street,” the campaign's coordinator, Ahmed Salah, recently told the LA Times.
While it is welcome that people are taking a stance, this type of initiative runs the risk of provoking vigilantism or, if the members of these voluntary patrols are not carefully vetted, of eventually attracting people who will abuse their position. In addition, although protecting women is a noble goal, it carries certain macho undertones.
The last few years have also seen a concerted campaign gather steam to introduce tough anti-harassment legislation. However, such measures are merely scratching the surface. The clash between modernity and tradition is creating some warped concepts. The tide is unlikely to turn significantly on harassment, until Egypt's gender imbalance and sexual identity crises are addressed and resolved. What Egypt really needs is a revolution in attitudes towards sex that take the shame out of consenting sexual relationships and equalise the sexual status of men and women.
This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited's Comment is Free section on 3 September 2008. Read the related discussion.
This is an archive piece that was migrated to this website from Diabolic Digest