Laurence is a French woman, a physiotherapist who had the chance to work in Egypt and was
overjoyed because, like most French people, she loved Egyptian civilization and dreamed of seeing
the Nile, the pyramids and the Pharaonic temples. I met Laurence in Cairo on various occasions, but
whenI met her again a few days ago, I was surprised to hear her saying: “I’ve decided to leave
Egypt for ever.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Because I can no longer stand being a woman on display,” she answered.
“What do you mean?”
“Every time I go out in the street, I don’t feel that I’m a human being with a mind and feelings. I
feel that I’m just a body, because I’m a woman on display to everyone. Every man I meet looks at
my body in an offensive manner and undresses me with his glances. I’ve started to avoid crowded
places because I know that crowds mean harassment. They mean that a man’s hand is going to reach
out to my breasts or my legs or any part of my body.”
“Does this always happen?” I asked.
“Invariably. If the guy can’t touch me for the crowds, he speaks to me in broken English to ask if
I have a boyfriend or a husband, in an attempt to sleep with me. Even the men walking on the other
side of the street shout out sexual remarks, or whistle or wave at me. A dozen men started to ogle
my body simultaneously, and after that I started taking the women’s carriage on the metro.”
“Do you wear revealing clothes?” I asked.
“Not at all. You’ve seen me several time and you’ve seen what I wear. I respect the culture of
others and I know that Egypt is a conservative country. Even in summer when I wear a sleeveless
top, I always put on a silk shawl to cover my arms.”
“Don’t you get harassed like that in France?” I said.
“Very rarely. After a year and a half in Cairo I can’t believe what’s happening. Sometimes it
seems like all Egyptian men have been struck with some sexual perversion. I’ve started to be afraid
of going out in the street. If I don’t have work I stay at home for whole days.”
“What are you going to do now?” I asked.
“I’m happy to have found a job in Greece, and I’m impatient to leave. At least in Greece no one
will try to grope me or ogle me or invite me to bed as soon as he sees me. There I’ll feel like a
human being and not a woman on show for sex.”
My conversation with Laurence came to an end and I felt sad. How could this happen in Egypt, a
country which was always known for being polite to foreigners and treating them well? I referred
back to the surveys which have been carried out on sexual harassment in Egypt and I found some
alarming results. Last year a survey by the Egyptian Centre for Human Rights found that 98 percent
of foreign women in Egypt had experienced sexual harassment. The strange thing is that this wave
of harassment is spreading alongside an overwhelming wave of superficial religiosity. All these
beards, gelabias, blaring loudspeakers, Wahabi salafist television channels, religion lessons and
manifestations of piety have not stopped the sexual harassment. Why do Egyptians harass women?
The traditional answer is that the women themselves are responsible for the harassment because
they wear revealing clothes and incite men to harass them. This is a perverse and incoherent
argument, firstly because it blames the victim instead of the perpetrator, secondly because it
portrays men as a bunch of stray beasts unable to control their instincts – as soon as they see a bare
piece of a woman’s body they pounce on her, thirdly because most women in Egypt now wear the
hijab but this does not protect them from harassment, according to the survey I mentioned, fourthly
because until the end of the 1970s Egyptian women wore very modern clothes revealing their arms
and legs and nevertheless sexual harassment was much less common then than it is now, and fifthly
because in France, for example, where women in general wear scanty clothing, the rate of sexual
harassment is no more than 20 percent, according to the New York Times.
This means that in pious
Egypt women suffer four or five times as much sexual harassment as women in secular France. In
fact those societies which strictly segregate men and women, such as Saudi Arabia and
Afghanistan, have the highest rates of sexual harassment in the world. The phenomenon in my
opinion is much more complicated than the type of clothes that women wear. My view is that sexual
harassment is rampant is Egypt for the following reasons:
Unemployment: the millions of young men who have failed to find jobs after completing their
education feel frustration and despair, and lose faith in the idea of justice, on the grounds that in
Egypt causes do not lead to conclusions: hard work does not necessarily lead to success, scholastic
excellence does not necessarily lead to a respectable job, and a commitment to morality does not
necessarily lead to social advancement. In fact, on the contrary, moral deviance often leads to
wealth. All this must push young men towards violence, and in this context psychologists say that
sex crimes are not always committed in order to satisfy sexual desire, and men often engage in
sexual harassment as a way to take revenge on society or to vent their anger and frustration.
The difficulty of getting married in Egypt: millions of Egyptians cannot afford to get married and,
since traditions and religious injunctions (both Muslim and Christian) ban extramarital relations,
most young Egyptians are sexually frustrated, which must sometimes make them harass women.
The prevalence of pornographic videos and easy access to them because of the communications
revolution and the spread of the Internet: in fact the harm done by pornographic material is not
confined to arousing the instincts of the young, who are already repressed. It also normalizes and
decriminalizes the idea of rape, removes the personal and respectful aspect of sexual relations, so
that sexual harassment becomes merely an act of pleasure rather than an abhorrent crime.
The final reason is that our attitude towards women in Egypt has changed. At the beginning of the
last century Egyptian women began a long struggle for liberation from the hareem, for equality with
men in education and employment and for a respected position in society. Egyptian society than fell
under the influence of the restricted Wahabi reading of Islam. Although this reading is strict about
covering up women’s bodies, it also sees a woman as merely an instrument of pleasure, a source of
temptation, a machine to produce children and a house servant. Everything else is less important. In
fact in their defence of Islamic dress codes, some Wahabi sheikhs have likened women to pieces of
candy which must be well wrapped so that flies don’t land on them. Those who say this may have
good intentions but likening women to pieces of candy dehumanizes women, because a piece of
candy has no mind or feelings and its only purpose is to be eaten and enjoyed. So if someone wants
some candy and cannot afford it, and if he has a chance to eat someone else’s candy with impunity,
he will not hesitate to take the chance. This is exactly what a man is doing when he sexually
harasses women in the street.
The sexual harassment of women will not stop until we revive the true open-minded Egyptian
reading of Islam, which sees women as human beings who are fully capable and competent, not just
as bodies or pieces of candy. The harassment will stop when corruption, despotism and injustice
come to an end, when a new political system comes about, elected by the people, giving the
millions of young people their natural right to live and work and get married.
Democracy is the solution.