Political commentator Mona El-Tahawy and TV reporter Caroline Sinz were sexually assaulted last week in Egypt. Mashallah News has decided to publish testimonies to show that sexual harassment can happen to anyone. It is a worldwide issue that women can face in all sorts of places anywhere.
Let’s preface this with something nice: Egypt has a great deal to be proud of. It has the pyramids for one. It has a rich history of song and dance. It has the Al Azhar mosque. It has the Yacoubian building. It has a legion of freedom fighters under its belt and a revolution-in-the-making to its name. It has koshary for crying out loud, a unique and spicy carbohydrate overload that fills you up but costs only some five ginehs (less than one dollar).
Indeed there’s plenty to boast about, but despite all the past glory, it has to be said: Several unsightly elements remain and one of the most depressing is the ongoing verbal and physical harassment that women and girls experience on a daily basis.
I’ll admit my perspective is highly subjective. Yet, after combining subjective experience with other first-hand accounts and research, what remains painfully clear is that harassment in Cairo is a given. It ranges from slick whispers of “hey sugar,” and “you bitch/whore/slut/insert other misogynistic term here” to grabbing, stalking, ogling, indecent exposure and groping. These things happen at night. These things also happen in broad daylight.
Most of the time it’s a one-off affair where words are hissed into your face as you pass a stranger on the street. Sometimes it’s the taxi driver who should be focusing on driving, but instead is shamelessly staring in the rear view mirror while he fondles himself through his pants. Sometimes it involves a group of guys inspired by the sheer volume of their collective testosterone that they decide to make obscene gestures with their hands and yell at passing women. Rarely, it involves a mob, and in that case heaven help the woman at the heart of it.
When it comes to the age of the perpetrators, there are no limits: twenty year old students with sisters are perpetrators; forty year old shopkeepers and businessmen with daughters are perpetrators; sixty year old cabdrivers with granddaughters are perpetrators. Even nine year old boys, children with mothers who should be more concerned with learning long division as opposed to how “sedrek 3asal” (literally, your breasts are like honey) is used in a sentence, are perpetrators. This isn’t a case of a few bad apples, it’s an epidemic. It’s a gender-specific version of the insidious plague marring the very fabric of Egyptian society.
To add insult to injury, it doesn’t matter where you are from, what you look like, how old you are, your level of education or how much/how little you’re covered up. You could wear jeans and a t-shirt. You could wear an abbaya. You could sport five heavy-duty garbage bags if you like, and walk down the street with a man who’s well over six feet tall and 230 pounds of pure muscle. It doesn’t matter. If you are a woman and if you set foot in Cairo for more than 24 hours, you will be harassed. I’d be willing to bet $1 million on it. Trust me, I won’t lose.
I won’t lose because stats show that upwards of 85% of Egyptian women and 98% of foreign women have been exposed to harassment (46.1% of Egyptians and 52.3% of foreigners on a daily basis). I won’t lose because the other day a friend of mine was slapped on the ass by an eight year old boy, and another friend was followed home by a man twice her age. I won’t lose because on the fifteen minute walk from the sports club to my house this morning I was verbally harassed only twice. Amazing! Only twice! My sarcasm may be thinly veiled, but technically “only twice” makes for good day in my books.
Based on the numbers alone the alarm bells should be ringing from the centre of Tahrir Square through Khan-el-Khalili (a notorious marketplace riddled with aggressive peddlers) all the way to the American University in Cairo, in the city’s east end. They should be ringing, but they’re not. Instead there’s a resounding silence that struggles to contain the ever simmering angst, rage and fear of hundreds of thousands women who have been harassed in this city. And that’s just today.
Acknowledging harassment 2
Check out the superb film Cairo 678 for a realistic depiction of harassment in Egypt.
Yes, there are innovative programs out there that serve to ease women’s frustration (e.g. the roll out of an excellent SMS messaging system that allows people to report incidences of harassment: HarassMap), but fundamentally it’s not enough. Women still are unable to obtain social justice because a/ there aren’t enough reliable legal, health or social avenues of recourse in place to deal with harassment, and b/ it’s such a socially accepted phenomenon that even though it has been/is addressed by some human rights groups, branches of the government, women’s activists and international NGOs, it’s being ignored, shrugged off and swept under the rug almost everywhere else. Either women are not worth being treated as equals or should just lighten up: “Come on, it’s just a little bit of flirting.”
In the face of such flippancy, combating harassment will require more than the lip service of opening a couple of women’s shelters, adding laws to the penal code and providing training to a handful of civil servants. Stamping out harassment will require years of programming and advocacy that focuses on behavioural change and involves committed action from all segments of society: from judges, civil servants, media and law enforcement officials, to teachers, doctors, religious leaders and well-respected members of each and every neighbourhood.
As the country moves towards building a new political system and revising its social and economic contracts, one can only hope it will also work towards making women’s safety (and empowerment) a reality. The catch is, things are messy enough as it is, and if the dominant rhetoric on the street continues to be “one revolution at a time” (with hardliners shouting above the din and being far less… er… diplomatic than that), it’s unlikely the issue will gain enough traction to give activists the space needed to secure additional public support in the fight against a socially driven malaise that afflicts a nation of sisters, mothers, daughters and friends.
Now if that’s not something worth fighting for, I don’t know what is.