Sexual Harassment in Egypt
|Monday, April 5,2010 18:55|
|By Joseph Mayton|
The issue has remained largely on the sidelines of Egypt’s social mold for years despite being violently shoved into the mainstream in October 2006. During the Eid celebrations that follow the Holy Month of Ramadan that year, tens of young men and boys attacked female bystanders, ripping at their clothing and groping them, in the heart of downtown Cairo who were waiting for a local cinema to open. Shopkeepers were forced to hide women in order to escape the terror.
Eyewitnesses reported a number of injuries including cuts and bruises. It was the first time the media covered harassment in any great depth.
Egypt’s interior ministry denied anything had occurred, arguing that “if something had occurred, people would have filed charges.”
Many Egyptians, especially men, viewed the event as a pariah. This was an abnormal incident that saw youth simply get overwhelmed in the moment, they argued. Don’t ask, don’t tell remains the status quo in a country struggling with social order.
“Sure, this was massive in scale, but to say it is not a daily fear of women living here is to ignore the overall situation of sexual harassment,” said Heba, a victim of the downtown attacks who suffered deep cuts on her hands.
Years on, women are still facing the brunt of the attack, as even government officials have argued that women in the country are partially to blame for the treatment they are forced to put up with.
Mohsen Reda, an Egyptian Member of Parliament, argued that women should be dressed more modestly as “a lot of our youth can’t afford marriage so it is only normal for some harassment to take place.”
Counterproductively, women often agree with the MP. In a 2007 report by the ECWR, a paragraph in the Arabic version – the same paragraph was later withheld from the English translation – said women in the country believe they are at fault for harassment.
“Some [Egyptian women] explained harassment as happening because people are [moving] away from religion,” the Arabic version reads, adding that “women often bring harassment [on themselves] because of the clothes they wear and the manner in which they carry themselves.”
Unfortunately, the problem isn’t a small segment of society. According to an ECWR report, over 60 percent of men surveyed admitted they participate in harassing women.
As a consequence of the belief that their own actions often invite such unwanted attention, Egyptian women are most likely to be passive in the face of sexual harassment by males, unwilling to respond to threats, even if those threats become violent.
“I do nothing because I don’t want to insult myself,” a young Coptic woman admitted, when asked her response to harassment.
“If I go home and tell my parents that I get harassed on the streets, they will say it is because of how I dress and won’t let me go out anymore,” added the woman who asked to remain anonymous.
On one occasion, she said, while heading home from university when a group of men began to yell obscenities at her, forcing her to pick up her pace in order to avoid them.
When they got too close for comfort, she panicked, quickly jumping over the barrier toward the sidewalk, tripping and hurting her knee in the process, and being left with a large bruise and broken skin.
Making matters worse, 96 percent of foreign women surveyed admitted to being harassed daily. Of those, 7 percent said they would never return to Egypt and another 6 percent would warn their female friends away from the Arab world’s largest nation.
Kate Dannies, a recent graduate from the American University in Cairo and journalist, is part of the growing foreign anger at the state of Egypt’s busy streets.
“We [a friend and I] were walking to our car and suddenly we see a guy on the sidewalk and he is masturbating in front of us, and the sidewalk is pretty deserted, it’s just us … so we didn’t know what to do so we just tried to keep walking past him, but then he grabbed me and we started screaming and then he ran off,” she retells.
What can be done, if anything, to end one of Egypt’s most serious social problems?
Only a few years ago, women would have stayed quiet about these happenings, but this is changing as more women feel silence only continues the issue.
“The problem is that women did not have the ability to talk,” Nehad Abu Komsan, the chairwoman of the ECWR begins, “and they feel the shame and were afraid to talk, but now they are more free to talk and they know that they are not alone and this is not her fault.”
Komsan argues that this has helped Egyptian society understand what is going on and will help to solve this social issue. An important aspect of her work is helping to development society as a whole, not only within the activist community.
“It is not important to be a woman figure or a women defender. Women are an essential part of society, so as long as they are active in different fields they will defend their rights and other people’s rights,” she adds.
She pointed to the appointment of Islamic notary, or Maazun in Arabic, Amal Soliman. The lawyer is the first female maazun in the Islamic world’s history, and the 32-year-old mother does not want to be seen as an activist despite the attention her new job has brought.
“Sure, this was expected, although I didn’t think it would take this long,” said Soliman, who holds a master’s degree in law from Zagazig University. The Ministry of Justice has yet to give her the green light to begin work after months of waiting.
Blame is being leveled by many women in the country against the government, who they feel is not doing enough to stem the amount of harassment that persists.
“I think the government has a hand in this, not direct, but by not cracking down on the perpetrators they abet in this [harassment],” said 30-year graduate student Asma Abdel Khalek.
Whether Egyptians begin to take the issue seriously or whether generations of women living in the country will continue to face harassment is something all sections of society are beginning to deal with.