• Women
  • September 28, 2009
  • 5 minutes read

What to do about Egypt’s sexual harassment problem

What to do about Egypt’s sexual harassment problem

Egypt struggles mightily with sexual harassment. Nearly 100 percent of all foreigners have experienced some form of sexual harassment in the country, while Egyptian women are reporting they are catching up quite rapidly. The Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights (ECWR) 2008 report showed that this is a rampant problem that desperately needs attention. A number of incidents during holidays has shown that police do little, if anything, to combat this problem. Many women tell of police participate almost as routinely as bystanders on the streets. It is a problem and it needs to get taken care of because if it doesn’t, Egypt is heading for a long future where the country’s female population will constantly feel threatened. That is no good for any society seeking a new direction.

Bikya Masr detailed the current debate on June 24 in a special series on sexual harassment in Egypt, which was well received, but there was nothing on how to solve the problem. It is easy to argue that it is a problem; personal stories and statistics reveal as much. However, it is often the solution that gets left aside as another story appears.

This is why we are offering a solution that has worked elsewhere in the region. Dubai is a city that has moved from a desert oasis a few decades ago into the quintessential major city of the world. Today, there is little harassment on the streets of the Middle East’s Las Vegas. The reason? The government stepped in, admitted the problem and took action.

A few years ago, a female Egyptian friend who had lived in Saudi Arabia related a story about how when she was in High School, her basketball team took a trip to Dubai to play. She said they were able to stroll on the streets in shorts. Women in shorts! This would be almost unheard of in Cairo, where even the conservatively dressed or veiled woman receives a barrage of horrific comments from loitering men. Dubai had acted, she said, in changing the public perception of harassment.

What did they do? It was simple. If a woman reported a harasser to the police, the officers would not simply dismiss her claims, instead they investigated and the perpetrator would be punished for his actions. His face would then be plastered on the local newspaper, giving his name and the area he lived. This public humiliation worked. Communities began to battle against having their neighborhoods published as a location of sexual harassers and today, the problem has been limited greatly.

In Egypt, the government, led by an ignorant first lady, has continued to refuse to admit there is a massive problem on the streets. First lady Suzanne Mubarak said last fall that there is no sexual harassment on Egypt’s streets, adding that “all Egyptian men respect women.” What would does she live in? Obviously not the same one as her fellow Egyptian women. The Egyptian government must admit there is a real problem on Egyptian streets and take action. Why not follow Dubai’s example. Humiliating men for their actions would go a long way to starting to end this horrific and mindless abuse.

And the police must engage the problem as professionals. About one-year ago, my wife, an Egyptian, was walking down a Zamalek street when a young man began harassing her. They got into a verbal fight and he touched her. She took him to the local police station to press charges. The officers tried to convince her to drop the charges, saying “nothing happened. It was not a big deal.” While the man was fired from his job due to his actions, police convinced her that even if she took the man to court, the likelihood of him being convicted was slim. We were shocked, but not as shocked as what he said at the end, when she was leaving the station: “Can you imagine what this would be like if you were a foreigner. We would have to do something.”

Do something if she were a foreigner? This is the problem. Not only are Egyptians often treated as second-class citizens in their own country, Egyptian women are forced to accept being third-class citizens. Can you imagine? It is horric and until there is concerted action to change the mindsets and set penalties for perpetrators and the officers who attempt to hide its real and dramatic results, Egypt will continue to struggle to move forward.

We call on all citizens who see harassment to report it and never let it go. This is not a result of education. It is the result of the state not intervening.