Until the revolution in social attitudes comes, women should face their sexual harassers with a loud voice and a shebsheb (a slipper).
Monday 20 June 2011
I went to Tahrir Square before, during the golden days of the revolution. It was too crowded, but I was not harassed. Yet on that particular Friday, when the country's political streams were divided about going to Tahrir and the square was relatively spacious, I was harassed!
Setting home, I said goodbye to my friends as we were going different ways and continued alone feeling no reason for worry at all. My friend said “God keep you safe” and I really wondered why she had said that. The world was a safe place to me.
I had heard a lot of stories from friends and relatives about the rampant harassment on Cairo streets. Yet it has been a long time since I ever faced anything similar, and it was mostly nothing major, maybe because I haven't really been using public transportations for a while. The two times when something remotely happened, I was either 19 or 20 and I kept away from a man who seemed to get closer towards me on the infamous CTA bus (which stands for Cairo Traffic Agency but commonly referred to those air conditioned buses which were notorious for these kinds of transgressions). Eventually, I'd move to another part of the bus while the man ,who is usually very cowardly, quickly gets off the bus, leaving the other passengers to wonder why the young woman changed seats.
But that was long ago and I was young and inexperienced. At least that's what I thought. And here I am at 28 years of age and not so sure anymore. I used to reassure myself that if anything like that happens, I'm going to get the hell out of the harasser's and gather an unmerciful crowd around him. I was no coward, I thought.
But on my way out of Tahrir that day, I walked in line to the exit. Usually, on other days, people respectfully left some distance and circled the women wherever they stood. And I was wary anyway. This time, however, when I felt a slight friction, I looked back and shunned the idea that anything untoward was happening. “I shouldn't be paranoid,” I told myself. Then again, but the movement was too slight to notice. Then a fight erupted close to the line, and in the confusion of people thrust against each other, the man took more liberties to perform more filthy acts. I was sure then, but I didn't know whether to worry about the crowds jostling in my direction or the man behind. In an instant, he was thrust backwards and I was thrust forwards, and the people kept telling me, “come here, come here” and offering me space outside of this mess.
It was over in a flash, and I wished I could make my way back to this man and tear his head into pieces, but with that fight going on I could never get to him. I was left with the worst part: that same confusion of feelings that I would've probably felt when I was 19. That thought of “why did he do that?”. This feeling of guilt and wondering “was there something that brought this about on my side?”. And then the ultimate shock of having been so unable to react, despite having previously told myself that I would be so fast to act. And given the fact that I'm usually fast and furious, I can't imagine how other women and younger girls would cope. This really was painful and humiliating.
I walked away, silently carrying this weight and, since police officers disappeared from the planet after the revolution, there was nothing to be done. And what would they do anyway. I had no proof whatsoever. Even the closest crowds would not have noticed the incident.
Although a recent draft law proposed raising the penalty for sexual harassment to execution in some cases, as with many laws in Egypt, there would be tons of barriers to actually carrying out that law. And as more than one comment on this news story related to the law reveal, there is always the argument that a woman may only be claiming this to harm the man.
I would have ordinarily thought sexism was a far cry from this issue and that feminists were just exaggerating. But on one of her status updates, Egyptian activist and journalist Dr Nadia el-Awady, says that while furiously addressing a police officer, she was rebuffed with this macho declaration: “If you were are good woman, you wouldn't talk to a man like that.” And the first impression one gets is that this man definitely thinks he's her husband.
I have to admit that I felt safe when people encircled us, women, on Tahrir, to protect us on crowded days. But when this male guardianship on the street is about to turn a well-established country back to tribal laws, this phenomenon should definitely be considered and faced.
A friend of mine was wondering why this sort of degraded act did not occur on the “first days of Tahrir” and I told her it was because of the types of people who were there. It is not only sexual frustration that is behind this, as my friend and some guests in this al-Jazeera English show suggest. It may be a much deeper frustration with life in general. The people who were in Tahrir on the first days of the revolution were people who believed in a cause, and were positive about what they believed in. Many were probably not rich, or married, but they thought of something further than their groins.
As women confirm, many of the men who commit these horrors are not young or unmarried. The culprit in my case appeared to be well into his forties and men of that age are usually married in Egypt. Amazingly too, my sister was also once harassed by a young boy who was about eight.
And it may be worth mentioning that I cover up so well that I wear a face veil. So, no, it is not, as the MP on the same Aljazeera programme suggest, always related to what the woman wears.
And because of all these accusations that harassed women may face, that it is all somehow their own fault, or maybe just out of shyness, I, like many women, did not mention the incident to people around me. Definitely, not to my husband, whose first reaction would have probably been, “See, you shouldn't have gone to Tahrir.”
Until Egyptian society decides to go beyond its assumptions and prejudices, do more research, and carry out fair laws, women in Egypt will have to make do with a loud voice and a shebsheb. The loud voice theory – my own modest but mind you very important theory – maintains that these harassers are sick, cowardly people, and like dogs, they are drawn by their victim's fear and driven away by confrontation. If you feel the slightest threat, you must protest early enough, loudly enough and strongly enough so that the aggressor flees and stops before going any further (my mistake in this case is that I didn't do that).
The shebsheb, which literally means a slipper, is the more informal – and oftentimes humourous – Egyptian way of settling all kinds of arguments in addition to humiliating the opponent. Remember Iraqi the journalist who hurled his shoes at George W Bush? Well, this something similar. So, besides their make up, mirror, and perfume, the recommendation is that, for now, every woman in Egypt must carry a little shebsheb in her bag, just in case there happens to be a trespasser on her private space and dignity. Isn't that the perfect tool in a 2011 state of law!
This article is part of a special series on sexual harassment. Published here with the author's consent. © Yosra Zoghby. All rights reserved