By Khaled Diab
The cure for Egypt’s sexual harassment crisis is to liberate society from outdated and toxic gender ideals and to rethink notions of “honour”.
Monday 24 March 2014
An incident of sexual harassment has provoked widespread outrage and sparked a broad public debate. Sadly, this is not because sexual harassment is a rare event. In fact, it has reached epidemic proportions in recent years. Despite the undoubted fear and distress it caused the victim, this was also not Egypt’s ugliest assault in recent times.
What made this incident noteworthy and shocking was its location: the campus of Cairo University, Egypt’s oldest and largest civil institute of higher education. Moreover, it occurred in the Faculty of Law, which was once Egypt’s most prestigious college before medicine and engineering took over the top spot.
Of course, Egypt’s state-run universities have become low-budget, mass-production lines that churn out students by the thousand. Still, many Egyptians expect the halls of academia to be relatively free of the ugliness that has overtaken the streets, especially at a university where women have been studying since 1928.
This raises the question of what exactly caused this mob of young men to behave so badly and madly?
With predictable inevitability, there was an undignified rush to blame the victim. Talk-show host and TV presenter Tamer Amin exemplified this attitude. “A girl at the Faculty of Law went dressed in clothes that are not appropriate for a student or a girl or anyone,” he complained.
“These are the clothes of a belly dancer, to put it politely,” Amin elaborated, overcoming his feigned decorum to say she was “dressed like a prostitute”.
The outfit which so offended the offensive broadcaster was a tight pink jumper, figure-hugging black jeans and what looks like a blonde wig.
To make matters worse, the dean of Cairo University, Gaber Nassar, also hinted that the harassed student had brought it upon herself through her “out-of-the-ordinary attire”. Interestingly, the female anchor who interviewed Nassar partially agreed with him, even though she herself was wearing bright red, skin-tight leggings.
These offensive “she was asking for it” justifications have caused widespread outrage, with activists naming and shaming, as well as demanding the rolling of heads. Mariam Kirollos, revolutionary drummer and anti-harassment activist, has publicly called for the sacking of Nassar. Others have called for Tamer Amin to be harassed for the provocative way he dresses.
Unfortunately, Amin and Nassar are not in a vacuum, and too many Egyptians – both men and women – subscribe to this preposterous myth.
But if the way a woman dresses really does provoke violent male lust in this way, how do advocates of this theory explain the sexual harassment munaqabat (women who wear the full face veil) endure?
In addition, Egyptian women went around for decades (from the 1940s to the 1970s) largely unharassed, even though they dressed “provocatively” in the latest fashion, including mini-skirts and sleeveless dresses.
This fascinating photo shows a sheikh at Al-Azhar giving a lecture to female students, all of whom are not wearing the hijab. The sheikh didn’t walk out in outrage because his students were not covered up, nor did the lecture hall full of bare-haired young ladies transform him into an uncontrollable ball of violent desire.
To my mind, this clearly illustrates that there is no correlation between the way a woman dresses and the way in which men behave. Moreover, the notion that women somehow provoke men is not only hurtful and painful to women, it is also highly insulting to men because it robs them of agency. It suggests that we men are little more than volatile balls of hormones that go into violent nuclear meltdown at the mere sight of a sexy woman.
So if a woman’s dress or sex appeal plays no role in harassment, what is behind the epidemic in Egypt?
The complement of the femme fatale theory is the notion that men who harass are driven by sexual frustration. While this may carry a grain of truth, sexual frustration plays, at most, only a marginal part, since there are plenty of men who are not sexually deprived who harass women, and vice-versa.
Others attribute the growing phenomenon to a breakdown in decency and respect, as well as the collapse of law and order.
To my mind, at the heart of the harassment epidemic lie false and unrealistic gender ideals and expectations.
In Egyptian society, female sexuality is viewed with distrust. Although this is a common feature of patriarchal societies, the most progressive have, to varying degrees of success, overcome the worst aspects of this prejudice.
However, in Egypt, too many people still believe that a woman is a walking sex bomb who will explode in a mushroom cloud of uncontainable lust upon first contact with freedom. This has led to an unspoken social contract in which women have persuaded their families and societies to allow them to leave the home to study and work, as long as they protect their “virtue”. And one of the biggest symbols of this safeguarding is the hijab.
This is also intimately linked to the traditional prizing of virginity and the still prevalent belief that a family and community’s honour hangs by the thin thread of the hymen of the unmarried woman or between the legs of the married. Regardless of her social and professional status or the good she does society, a woman’s genitalia are what define her “honour” and morality.
But this pact has come under increasing strain in recent years. The more prominent and visible women have become in society, the harsher the conservative backlash has been. This was evident in the behaviour of the Islamists who threw acid in the faces of female university students in the 1990s, and the assaults on female protesters and the “virginity tests” carried out on them during the revolution.
To hear conservatives speak, you’d think that women are not only the vessels of society’s honour, but also the weapons of mass debauchery that have shredded Egypt’s social fabric and brought the “Mother of the World” to her knees. It is far easier to hold women, marginalised and vulnerable as they are, responsible than it is to dig deep for real answers.
For their part, many women have rejected this pact, and the hypocrisy it involves, and many are rebelling openly. Regardless of their own personal sexual ethics, a growing number of women are becoming vocal about the blatant inequality and duplicity in society’s attitudes towards male and female sexuality.
While a man is usually admired for his sexual prowess, a woman is vilified and often ostracised. Again, while this is common across the world, mainstream Egypt lies on the more conservative end of the global spectrum.
There is also growing displeasure at many men’s desire to have their cake and eat it. They want women to be sexually liberal with them before marriage, but then want to settle down and marry a “virtuous” woman. Many men don’t mind their wives sharing the crippling financial burden of modern life, but still fancy themselves lords and masters of the domestic domain.
That said, aside from the “alpha males”, men, to varying degrees, are also victims of the patriarchy – and this reality is often overlooked. The media and society peddles an ideal of the “real” man that has little to no basis in reality, and mocks and derides those who dare to live by alternative models as being weak and under the thumb of their women, not as genuine believers in and advocates of equality.
Sexual harassment will continue until we liberate ourselves from the sex and gender myths that dominate our society, and to stop investing our honour in and blaming our problems on women. Egypt urgently needs a sexual liberation movement that will allow every man and woman to make the sexual choices that suit them without judgement.
More articles on sexual harassment are available in this Chronikler special report.
This article first appeared in The Daily News Egypt on 22 March 2014.