The insidious prevalence of sexual harassment in Egypt found itself at the centre of a very public, global discussion this year, and I could not be more pleased that this issue has emerged from the shadows.
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CBS reporter Lara Logan’s account of her physical and sexual assault by a Cairo mob and news that women detained during the Jan. 25 uprising were subjected to forced virginity tests have given male offenders a sampling of the negative glare and condemnation they deserve.
These incidents will surely make many tourists think twice about travelling to Egypt and should force society and the government to bring to an end the practice of turning a blind eye to acts of violence against women. For decades, too many men in Egypt have become progressively more cruel and deliberate in their mistreatment of women in public places.
Sexual harassment of Egyptian women is, sadly, ingrained in the cultural fabric of society to the extent that we have accepted it as an unalterable reality, one that women have been forced to adapt to. I certainly became numb following repeated exposure to harassment while living in Cairo after university, and during periodic visits since then.
As a young, cash-strapped journalist when I first moved to the Egyptian capital in 2002, I would take mini buses and vans to and from my family’s apartment in the heart of the Pyramids district to my office in the more upscale neighbourhood of Mohandiseen. The commute took about an hour in the morning rush on Cairo’s congested Pyramids Street.
I was always careful to wear ankle-length skirts or pants, and the sleeves of my blouses would usually extend below the elbow. All but my hair and face were generally covered. Yet not a day would go by that I wasn’t glared at, subject to inappropriate often sexual remarks, objectified, and sometimes touched or stroked by other male passengers.
My cheerful disposition quickly transformed; I became very stern, unsmiling and cold in order to dodge harassment as much as possible. I learned to avoid eye contact with men, instead focusing on a book or out the window as I eagerly awaited my stop each day. It was exceptionally difficult to feel comfortable in my own skin when defiant stares concentrated on every part of my body.
Such an experience is the rule rather than the exception. Some 83% of Egyptian women and 98% of foreign women said in a 2008 poll by the Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights that they faced sexual harassment while in Egypt. A staggering 46% of Egyptian and 52.3% of foreign women faced harassment daily – and 72.5% of the well over 2,000 women surveyed wore some form of a veil.
Needless to say after about five months of taking public transportation, I was relieved to be able to afford regular taxis that would pick me up and drop my off. Until today I cannot fathom how women endure the abuse of men every day on public transport; I applaud their courage and strength. My experience in the workplace, at functions and meetings tended to be more respectful and comfortable.
Yet even after I stopped taking public transportation, men would find ways to do the most appalling things. Once I was waiting for my morning taxi on the street corner in front of my apartment building, and a young man of less than 30 passed by. He stopped a couple of metres away from me at the corner of the fence that bordered the property next door, pulled down his pants and underwear and began masturbating while facing me and staring. Horrified, I ran up the walkway of my building and waited at the top of the stairs until my driver called to inform me he had arrived. From then on, I wouldn’t leave my apartment until a missed call signalled the taxi was downstairs.
It was not always easy to escape quickly when faced with inappropriate behaviour. Often when my hands were full of groceries as I walked home from the nearby souk, young boys would challenge each other to run by, touch my bottom or breast, and then run away. Lecturing them to have some respect or fear of God would induce only laughter. These boys had learned that it is alright to objectify women who are not their sister, relative or family friend. And they faced no consequences for doing so.
The walk to my office, home, grocery store or mall would often be interrupted by a slow-moving car whose driver was scouting the streets for prostitutes. And I don’t even want to remember the remarks I heard and touches I suffered when I once missed the door to the women’s carriage of the Cairo subway and found myself in a subway car teeming with men, many of whom had no concept of respect or courtesy for the opposite sex. What consistently shocked me was the lack of intervention; not one time did a man who very publicly harassed me face any criticism from others standing in the vicinity.
The tides are beginning to change with initiatives such as HarassMap, which allows women to instantly report incidents of sexual harassment by sending a text message to a centralised computer. This initiative is absolutely imperative to start altering the culture’s tolerance of sexual harassment by documenting its frequency. The media is catching on as well. Al-MasryAl-Youm said this month it would feature pieces each Wednesday to “dissect the reasons behind sexual harassment”.
I was very excited by women’s extensive participation in the Egyptian revolution, especially when I heard anecdotally that harassment was rare in Tahrir Square. I thought the revolution would offer a sincere challenge to the patriarchal structure that for so long had condoned sexual harassment. In recent months, however, it seems the condition for women has reverted back to what it was before, and by some accounts harassment has gotten worse as part of a concerted effort by the military to shame women away from protesting:
“The girls who were detained were not like your daughter or mine. These were girls who had camped out in tents with male protesters in Tahrir Square, and we found in the tents Molotov cocktails and drugs.”
This blatantly incorrect, ignorant and shameful comment by an army officer did not surprise me. Such perceptions are suggestive of the damage caused by the disintegration of moral values in Egypt in the last 40 years. Virtually every Egyptian woman over 55 will recount stories of how she and her friends wore short dresses and sleeveless tops in the 1950s and 60s—and no man dared to harass them.
Ironically, my mom was more comfortable walking on Cairo’s streets as a striking 20-year-old in a mini skirt than she was as a conservatively dressed woman in her late 50s. After buying groceries at a neighbourhood shop a few years ago, she was approached by young man who offered to assist her with the bags. When she declined his invitation, he made an obscene comment. Needless to say my mom gave him a well-deserved and very loud lecture on morality and Islamic values before he was able to escape the vicinity.
Society must begin naming, shaming and ridiculing male perpetrators of sexual harassment in newspapers, on television and online. These offenders must face legal consequences for their actions so Egypt’s youth are conditioned over time to change their disgraceful ways. Allowing the harassment problem to continue to fester threatens widespread social and economic ramifications, including for tourism.
New campaigns that target a man’s honour, preach respectability, and teach men to treat all women as they would their sisters must happen widely and aggressively before meaningful change takes place. Egyptians are persuaded by the ideas of honour and shame they are exposed to on the news, television programmes and movies. The onus of upholding honour has always fallen on the shoulders women. The time has come for men to share the burden.
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