Taking on Sexual Harassment, a Social Phenomenon in Egypt

By Mohammed Ali Atassi

Sexual harassment of women in Egypt is one of many social problems that politicians and the media have tended to treat as an instance of individual, abnormal behavior. Because they treat it as an isolated aberration from proper social norms – falling outside the path, principles and traditions of a sanctioned way of life – Egyptian society as a whole does not need to confront it.

It took the courage of a few Egyptian women who exposed their own suffering to reveal the treatment many women routinely experience on the streets of Cairo. Simultaneously, a few civil society organizations, aided by alternative media outlets (blogs foremost among them), launched awareness campaigns aimed at transforming both the understanding and method of dealing with the issue, so that Egyptions would cease to view future incidents as isolated acts of perversion, and instead see them as components of a pressing social problem. As such, perceptions of sexual harassment have changed to now frame it as an important issue – one that demands political, educational and judicial measures, though many of these have yet to be implemented.

The problem of sexual harassment in Egypt comes to sharp focus in the case of the young film director Nouha Rushdi Saleh, who won a legal case against a truck driver who harassed her in a Cairo street. The court handed down a three-year jail sentence to the perpetrator – and the case blew the cover off the issue in Egypt, where official silence has reigned for years.

Most tourist guidebooks on Egypt, particularly those published abroad, warning foreign women regarding sexual harassment in the street, and offer advice on how they should act and react. This could easily suggest that this phenomenon is on the rise. The aggression is hardly confined to foreign women; its victims include Egyptian women from all social and religious classes, veiled and unveiled.

Still, most public authorities and influential social forces ignored the issue until the outbreak of the 2006 riots. During the downtown celebrations of the holiday of Eid al-Fitr, a crowd of hundreds of sexually frenzied young men participated in violent attacks on dozens of women, surrounding them in the streets, groping and even trying to undress them. As police stood by and watched the scene ambivalently, no one, not mothers nor veiled women, were safe from the mob.

Supported by the state media, mainly newspapers, some political figures tried to minimize the impact of the incident by accusing the opposition of exploiting the social and political dimensions of the riot for their own benefit. But if the state authority was ready for a cover-up, the Egyptian blogosphere was ready for a fight. Bloggers published testimonies and played video clips of the scenes in Talat Harb square and the surrounding streets where women were assaulted.

And while Egyptian authorities took action and installed security cameras in the center of the city – the site of the 2006 riot – to alleviate the phenomenon, the effort did nothing to prevent similar attacks from being perpetrated in other parts of the city. Incidents spread and in fact intensified in other areas, including Al Haram Street and Al Mohandesseen district, where many girls were assaulted on Eid al-Fitr last year. This time, however, police successfully arrested many of the attackers.

Unfortunately, many dominant beliefs still place the blame squarely on the shoulders of the victims of sexual harassment. Society makes an implicit assumption that women dress provocatively, or otherwise behave suspiciously to excite men into violently attacking them – or blame women simply because they are unveiled or don’t conform to conservative Islamic dress codes.

If there was one positive result of the 2006 attacks – which claimed many veiled victims – it opened the door for public debate about the phenomenon of sexual harassment in Egypt. Civil society organizations and women’s groups touched on the fresh social wound, launching a legion of awareness campaigns while the issue was still  on citizens’ minds.

These campaigns sought to educate women about their own rights and warn both men and women about the severity of these practices and the pressing need to face the problem as a society. Presenting it as a social issue that affects everyone, the campaigns linked the phenomenon of sexual harassment to youth unemployment and marginalization, as well as to the fact that a growing number of young people are marrying at an older age. They also cited the upsurge in sexual repression amidst an increasingly male chauvinist culture, in addition to the breakdown of the family and moral codes, as factors. 

The magazine Kalimatina (“Our Word”) published the campaign “Respect Yourself,” and the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights presented “Safe Streets for Everyone.” In cooperation with various media outlets, both print and visual, websites and blogs, these campaigns worked to enlighten Egyptian youth on the danger of such practices and demand the development of laws that deter them. Campaigns also prepared police stations and trained officers for handling sexual harassment incidents.

In the wake of this multi-faceted campaign, a sociological study named “Clouds in the Sky of Egypt: Sexual Harassment – From Verbal Advances to Rape” examined the situation. The study took a sample of 2,500 Egyptian women and 2,020 other individuals (equally divided between men and women), as well as a survey of 109 foreign women. The results were shocking: 98 percent of the foreign women and 83 percent of the Egyptian women had been subject to sexual harassment – and nearly two-thirds of the men confessed to committing sexual harassment against women.

 

Counter-Campaigns

On the other hand, conservative political and religious groups attempted to exploit the worsened incidents of sexual harassment to serve their own special interests. In a manner clearly demeaning to women, these factions attacked women’s dignity by pegging the blame for the assaults on the victims. The counter-campaigns even went so far as to collude with those who committed the crimes in an obvious attempt to justify their deeds. Rather than defending the victims or protecting women’s rights, these campaigns took the opposite approach.

Two striking examples of this came in the form of posters that the groups hung in some streets and published on many Islamic blogs and websites. The first contains two juxtaposed images. The picture on the right has a green hue and features a woman wearing a veil plastered with mosque-minaret pictures. At the bottom of the picture is a piece of candy carefully wrapped in green, and under it the statement that God will forgive the sins of veiled women. The image on the left, tinted in bright red, depicts an unveiled woman and a man. The bottom shows a red candy in torn paper, with a religious injunction beneath that warns women of moral failure.

The second poster continues the theme of objectifying woman, likening her to a piece of candy ready to be eaten, by portraying her as a lollipop that cannot be protected from flies (which means men in the language of these campaigns), save with the wrapper, which translates to the veil. Under the images of two lollipops, one wrapped and the second naked with flies hovering over it, a religious statement professes that an unveiled woman will not be able to protect herself –  for God, the creator, knows what is in her best interest, and thus ordered the veil.

These messages reveal a disturbing mentality and ideology that view woman as objects of pleasure and entertainment, who must cater to man’s physical needs and fantasies for religion’s sake. While enjoining women to cover themselves in public to prevent being sexually harassed by strangers, this belief system seems to limit women’s choice when it comes to their own sexuality. These messages imply that the spread of sexual harassment is linked to the absence of the veil, and thus the unveiled woman holds the responsibility for the sexual harassment she encounters.

                           

 

Interference of Justice

The public discussion over sexual harassment could have been confined to the media, the campaigns and the counter campaigns were it not for the courage of the young Egyptian director, Nouha Rushdi Saleh. A driver sexually assaulted her while she returned from the airport, even though she was accompanied by a friend. The assault took place in one of the streets close to her home in the Al Karba district when the driver began swerving his car towards her, extending his hand from the window and violently pulling her towards him. He touched her breasts until she fell on the ground, then he quickly drove away, looking back mockingly at her through his window.

According to Saleh, this glance back was an important factor in her decision to turn to the court and demand her rights. Yelling and feeling great anger that cannot be expressed in words, she followed the driver and was able, thanks to the heavy traffic, to grab the front of his car, all the while shouting and calling for help. Saleh gave an account of her shock at other pedestrians’ reaction: “I couldn’t believe that some were willing to help and assist the driver to run away in the car, while others told me, ‘We will let him apologize to you.’ I asked them why I would want an apology. Had he stepped over my feet? With my refusal, they asked, ‘What do you need?’ I told them I would report him to the police station. Another bystander said, ‘I don’t understand why you stand here in the midst of men.’ There were people on their balconies looking down and watching me as if I were in a film. One woman was saying to me, ‘Enough my daughter, forgive him,’ but I refused and maintained my position.”

Nouha’s legal background empowered her to insist on her rights, and she succeeded in making a police report and taking the defendant to the criminal court. With the support of her father, she was determined to have the court session be public as a means of shaking the Egyptian populace and judicial system into confronting sexual harassment. Northern Cairo’s criminal court, presided over by Judge Shawqi al-Shalqani, issued a judgment on October 21, 2008, which sentenced the defendant Sharif Jouma Jebril to three years in jail and a payment of 5,001 Egyptian pounds as a penalty. Nouha faced the news cameras and said that the judgment had restored her self-esteem. The judicial system had done her justice, paving the way for all Egypt’s daughters to pursue the legal road to claim their rights and render the first nail into the coffin of sexual harassment.

However, the judgment did not prevent Nouha Rushdi Saleh from being the subject of a vicious campaign that impugned her credibility. Her critics accused her of distorting Egypt’s reputation and of carrying Israeli citizenship, as her grandfather was among the Palestinian refugees who came to Egypt. But her courage has left a significant mark on Egyptian society, because she insisted on seeing her judicial proceeding to the end, as well as ultimately extracting a judgment in her favor from the Egyptian court. She will be remembered for helping to spearhead the long and difficult battle towards creating a civil society that holds the dignity and rights of women as inseparable from its overall goals and aspirations.

 

This essay appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 15, no. 60 (2009)

Copyright (c) 2009 by Al Jadid

Translation Copyright (c) 2009 by Al Jadid

Translated from the Arabic by Joseph E Mouallem. 

The Arabic version of this article appeared in An Nahar Cultural Supplement on November 2008. This article is translated into English by the author’s permission.


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