Sexual harassment: Undressing naked prejudice

 
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By Nadine Marroushi

To those who believe the way a woman dresses invites harassment, hear this: she is not to blame – her harassers are.

Saturday 22 March 2014

I’m struggling to know where to begin writing about a female student who was sexually harassed by a mob of male students on campus this week at Cairo University.

“This, again?” I’m asking myself with a very heavy heart.

The young woman was followed by a group of male students from the Faculty of Law, and verbally and physically harassed, according to a statement by 12 rights organisations condemning the incident. She was able to escape, before they stripped her of her clothing, “a scene that has become familiar in Egypt in recent years,” the statement added.

I find it ironic that the students were from the Faculty of Law. Or perhaps they knew all too well that there is no law against the  epidemic of sexual harassment in Egypt and the default response for society-at-large is still to blame the victim, not the perpetrators.

The President of Cairo University, Dr Gaber Nassar, provoked outrage when he told a television show, in a phone-in interview, that the woman was partly to blame because of her clothing, a pink, long-sleeved top and black trousers, instead of the more conservative cloak, or abaya. He also suggested that the female student might be punished, if she is found guilty. He later  retracted the comments.

Television presenter Tamer Amin said her clothes were those of a “belly dancer”, as an indication of how inappropriate he found her clothing to have been.

A pink top and black trousers. Really?

As the head of Egypt’s leading state university, has Dr Nassar not read the well-known 2008 study on sexual harassment called Cloud’s in Egypt’s Sky, published by the Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights, the European Commission and the United Nations Population Fund?

The widely cited report finds that there is no inverse correlation between women dressing more conservatively and reported incidents of sexual harassment. The majority of women, 31.9%, who experienced sexual harassment wore a blouse, long skirt and veil, the study revealed. A fifth of women wore a long blouse, trousers and a veil, and another fifth dressed in a cloak and veil, the document reported.

And, the leading occupation of harassers were drivers, followed by schoolchildren and university students, the report surmised.

In a comical illustration of this, a television show on sexual harassment called Awel el-Khayt, which aired last May, showed a male actor, Walid, dressed up as a woman and walking through downtown Cairo.

Walid wore a long white skirt, long white top, and went bare-haired in a wig of medium length. Men followed “her” and catcalled her. In the second experiment, he/she walked in similar clothing, but wearing a veil and got the same response, as well as a man propositioning her for sex.

In an interview at the end of the show, Walid confessed: “When I walk in the street, I don’t give a thought to all that … But as a woman walking in the street, when I dressed as a woman with makeup and all, with or without the veil, just walking along requires effort. Mental and physical effort. It’s like women are besieged all the time. There are eyes everywhere.”

It’s exhausting.

As a woman, who has been living in Egypt since 2011, I’ve had to give up my love of jogging outdoors, because the first time I tried to do so a man stopped beside me to masturbate. He actually stopped his car and got out to do that. I still look on with envy at the men who continue to jog, carefree, along the corniche.

An Egyptian friend of mine was also grabbed by a man in a car, while she was jogging alone.

That’s not to mention the near daily incidents of verbal harassment, sexually suggestive comments, even from police officers, that brush past your ear like the buzz of an annoying mosquito. If only there was “anti-harassment” bug spray to keep them all away. And those stares, men just looking at you, as if you’ve done something wrong by being you, as you walk past. I rarely make eye contact. Or the men who slow down their car, as you walk past, just to see if you’ll get in.

And harassment is not only an Egypt phenomenon, as the international SlutWalk protests have made known. They began in 2011 after a Canadian police officer suggested that to remain safe “women should avoid dressing like sluts.” Women took that crude outburst and re-appropriated it to emphasise that their clothing should not be an excuse for harassment and, at the far end of the scale, sexual assault.

Verbal harassment is one end of a spectrum that by going unpunished leads at the end to rape. In 2013, Egypt witnessed hundreds of incidents of mass sexual assault and rape in the vicinity of Tahrir Square that were  documented by human rights groups.

The history of violence against women in Egypt goes back a number of years, too long to recount in one blog post, suffice it to say that as long as the perpetrators of these crimes go unpunished, women will continue to fall victim to these cruel acts. The notion that women are to blame for this, because of what they wear is ridiculous, as studies and actual experiences prove.

All I can say at this stage, which doesn’t seem like much really, but needs saying again and again:

She is not to blame. She is not to blame. She is not to blame.

More articles on sexual harassment are available in this Chronikler special report.

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