For women, street harassment is a fact of Cairene life. No woman — and I mean no woman — is immune from the annoying comments, or from the furtive touching or grabbing if she finds herself in a crowded place. The first two cars of the subway are reserved for women for just this reason (though I don’t know how I feel about this, since if a woman happens to miss getting on those first two cars, or is traveling with a man, she is more likely to find herself surrounded by men, and only men, on the rest of the train). The verbal harassment is pervasive and constant and anyone who lives there adapts her behavior in order to deal with it, learning which places to avoid; bridges and corniches, for example, are particularly bad. I’ve been followed, had my crotch grabbed by an eight-year-old, and have had all manner of dirty comments in Arabic and English directed at me.
From what I could tell, there is very little public discussion or acknowledgement in the media of this problem. When I complained about it to my Egyptian friends the reaction was often embarrassment and shame, but there were also an element of denial, and attempts to rationalize the behavior. A couple of women told me that they were flattered by the verbal comments such as “sweet!” or “honey.” The grabbing was considered acceptable by no one, but a friend defensively responded by saying, yes, the grabbing is bad, but in America there’s so much more crime, so living in Cairo is considerably safer than living in an American city. There is some truth to this: for a city of upwards of 15 million with a mostly ineffectual police force, Cairo is amazingly safe; but walking around your average American city doesn’t make me feel emotionally worn down at the end of the day. Some tried to rationalize it by saying that I was a target because I was a foreigner, and foreign women are perceived as sexually available. But this ignores the considerable extent to which Egyptian women are harassed.
Harassment is pretty common in Mediterranean countries in general –I’ve heard horror stories about Sicily — but in the other countries I’m familiar with, the situation seems to have improved: I was harassed in Athens more in 1991 than I was in 1996; I was harassed in Turkey more in 1995 than I was in 1997.
Sadly, sexual intimidation of women has taken a very disturbing turn in Egypt. This blog documents a recent hair-raising incident:
- The crowds seem to have initially gather at a movie theatre where some actors were present for a movie premier. Tickets to the movie ran out and people started breaking glass and stealing posters.
- The first day involved more unconcentrated/disorganized harrassments. the second day involved larger crowds approaching girls at a time before surrounding them/her and groping them/her.
- There was no police involvement though Egyptian State Security were no more than 5 minutes away, stationed at Gam3et El Dowal and the American Embassy.
- The crowds did not spare women that were with their husbands, fathers, brothers, sons, relatives.
- The second day harrassments lasted for more than 4 hours.
- The men’s ages ranged from 10 to 40.
- Fights between the men sometimes ensued over who gets to assault the victim.
- Some bloggers report police officers receiving bribes to leave the area.
Read on for more stomach-churning details. Some women were surrounded by mobs who removed their tops and bras.
This is a relatively new phenomenon, as far as I am aware. The street harassment I described above was mostly annoying, certainly demoralizing, but seldom terrifying. The first I became aware of mobs assaulting women in this way was in the spring of 2005, when police used these same tactics against female protestors (the issue was the phony referendum held to rubber-stamp another Mubarak mandate) and against the female photographers who were taking pictures of the abuse. The Arabist Network had excellent coverage of this here, and this post here links to photos of the demo. From the first link:
I went to join the Kefaya demonstration in the press syndicate. I was wearing the KEFAYA badge and was leaning at a wall because I have recently had an operation in my neck. Those men attacked me and beat me brutally and tore my clothes and underclothes until I was naked. The police was standing there, watching. What has happened is a major violation, a molestation of women in the streets of Cairo. The streets became an Abou Ghraib prison. It was clear those were the instructions of the police. I caught the hooligan who tore my clothes. But he was helped to escape by the police authorities. I shall file a complaint. I know how he looks like. I shall not let him go.
It appears that recent mob violent has its precedent in government-sponsored violence against female protestors in 2005. Not so shocking, then, that police did not lift a finger to stop the harrassment of women in last week’s incident.
Everyone has a pet theory as to why this is happening. Some cite the widespread sexual frustration suffered by Egyptian men: a man can’t get married until he has the money to buy a flat and furnish it, which means that many men, even middle-class men, have to wait until they’re in their thirties, and they point to the fact that sex outside of marriage is generally unavailable and that prostitution is not common and is probably unaffordable for most men anyway. Others note that there’s been an increase in palpable economic and political frustration in Egypt in the last few years. Still others point to the general climate of sexism and discrimination directed at women in Egypt. And a commenter at Mechanical Crowds says that women are attacked because they can’t fight back (though this does not convince, because not too many men can fight off an entire mob either).
These theories don’t explain why this mob violence is rearing its ugly head now, and why it’s taking this particular form. I wonder: it is a fact that the police regularly and consciously use sexual humiliation tactics against anyone they perceive as a threat to public order, whether these be accused terrorists, gay men, or anti-government protestors. That police sodomize prisoners and have abetted the public stripping of women is pretty widely known. Perhaps now, groups of angry, hostile men have been made aware that this is a quasi-accepted, very potent way to express rage, and thus it has filtered down from the state apparatus to the angry man in the street.
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