Saturday, March 27, 2010

The nightmare of sexual harassment in Egypt

It is the patriarchal mentality that holds women accountable for the mistakes of men.

Three years ago, a number of bloggers on their way back home after celebrating Eid el-Fitr in downtown Cairo, saw a group of men standing around Talaat Harb Street, harassing every woman passing by, including those wearing the full-veil, or niqab! The bloggers could not help but take photos of the shocking scene with their mobile phone cameras and published the incident online.

The shocking story was, then, picked up by different local and international media. Simultaneously, some women’s rights groups started calling for ending sexual harassment against women. Ordinary people, especially women, have been encouraged to speak more about their personal experiences with sexual harassment and are thinking of brilliant and creative ways to stop it.

Before this horrible incident in 2006, sexual harassment, either verbal or physical, was one of the biggest taboos in society and women did not dare to complain about it in public. Even the state-owned media kept telling illusionary statements about Egypt as “the safest country in the world” in comparison to other countries in the West where rates of harassment and rape are very high.

However, in the closed female communities, girls schools for instance, women used to speak a lot about the harassment they suffer in public transportation, in the street and sometimes from their male relatives or friends of the family. Sometimes, the women shared ideas, secretly, with each other on how they could protect themselves against harassment. Some young women, especially university students, usually carry weapons, sprays, or small pins, in their handbags to use when necessary to stop the one harassment.

Sexual harassment in Egypt has two forms; verbal and physical. The verbal harassment is like when a boy tells a girl passing by that she is so beautiful or says a word that indicates that he has some sexual interest in her. This does not include direct interaction between the victim and the perpetrator. A girl is usually instructed to go away and never talk to the man harassing her. If she did, every one will look down at her as an impolite girl! Moreover, the boy will be encouraged to harass her more if she responds to him in any way.

“Men are like dull dogs in the street. When you pass by them, they might bark at you,” said Karima, a middle-class, well-educated mother of five girls. “If you ignored them, they will not bark again. But if you responded to them, they will bite you. This is what I am telling my girls to do: to ignore the boys harassing them and go on their way.”

Physical harassment is absolutely every type of physical action toward a woman. This might include touching a woman’s body in a way that offends her; i.e. without her permission. This usually happens in the stuffed public transportation vehicles and sometimes in the subway and workplace. Unfortunately, women in Egypt did not have the courage to speak about this sort of harassment until after the famous incident of Noha Roushdy.

Noha is a young girl who was physically harassed by a truck driver. Noha did not follow the mother’s advice of “ignoring the dog barking at her.” Instead, she stopped him and took him to police station. Everyone blamed her for this, including the people who witnessed the incident with their own eyes and who know well that she was a victim. However, they were blaming her because she is a woman and she should not be so dare to fight with a man in the street, even if this man harassed her.

However, Noha won in the end the perpetrator was sentenced to three years in prison! The brave Noha encouraged other, ‘weaker’ women to take a stance and made men think hundreds of times before they approach a woman to harass, either physically or verbally. For sure, they do not want to spend years in jail for a pleasure that leads to no real sexual satisfaction.

The problem of sexual harassment in Egypt has to do with the general mentality of the society. Today’s Egypt is infected with two main diseases: religious extremism and patriarchy. Unfortunately, the only victim for both is the woman, who is always burdened with keeping the ‘honor’ of the family.

The religious nature of the Egyptian people, which once was one of their best characteristics, turned into a catastrophe when it grew – due to different political and economic influences – into religious extremism. The woman under this extremist society is always viewed as a sexual object, created only to please the man and satisfy his physical needs. Extremists always fail to view women as real human beings who are 100 percent equal to men.

At the same time, this trend of extremism puts people under physical and psychological depression and encourages men to think all the time that whenever they interact with a woman they will lose control over their physical desires. For them, the woman is a devil that should not mingle with men unless covered from head to toe; wears no perfume; and preferably never goes out of her home in order not to tempt men and spread vice in society!

“Do not blame me, you should blame her. She encouraged me to harass her.” You will hear this sentence from most of the men practicing harassment. They usually justify their actions by saying that the woman they are harassing is not covered, or wearing hijab, or she wears makeup, etc. Blaming women for the mistakes of men.

For a man who embraces such foolish ideas and looks down at women as a sexual object who forces him to lose his strength in controlling his desires, sexual harassment of women is always viewed as a right, not a mistake.