By Anne Weis

 

In Egypt, sexual harassment of women in public places is an increasingly common problem. While the streets of Egypt’s cities have always been slightly unsafe for women, what some people are calling Egypt’s harassment ‘epidemic’ has worsened in the wake of the Arab Spring and the subsequent transition of power in Egypt.[1] The levels of harassment reached new heights during the widely attended protests in Tahrir Square during the revolution. Since then, the absence of a strong police force has led to many incidents of harassment going unnoticed or unpunished. However, the revolution also brought greater international and domestic attention to the issue because multiple foreign reporters and journalists were brutally harassed during the uprisings.[2]

Harassment on Egypt’s streets—most notably in big cities like Cairo and Alexandria—reached an all time high during the recent Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, which lasted four days and included many large celebrations in city streets and squares. During Eid, over 1,000 people filed sexual harassment complaints in Egypt.[3] The high number led the recently elected Egyptian president, Muhammad Morsi, to order an investigation into the trend of sexual harassment in Egypt. Yet, Egyptian citizens who are skeptical that the government will take effective preventative action have taken matters into their own hands.

Nihal Saad Zaghloul was the victim of a sexual assault in Tahrir Square.  To protect other women from the trauma she suffered, she started a movement to combat street harassment.[4] Members of her group, called Bassma, patrol streets and subways in Cairo and try to prevent assaults on women by non-aggressive and non-violent means. Other preventative groups, most notably one that operates under the slogan ‘Be a Man,’ are more willing to resort to aggression when necessary. Members of this group spray paint the faces and clothes of harassers to mark them, and sometimes they even physically fight them.[5] While women’s rights activists in Egypt and beyond agree that the problem of harassment needs to be addressed, many question whether this is the right way to do it. There is a worry that continued tension between would-be harassers and Egyptian vigilantes will cause Egyptian society to become a lawless and unruly state. Many fear that the street violence will only get worse.

One of the biggest issues surrounding the harassment epidemic in Egypt is that many of the perpetrators have taken to blaming the victim. When asked about harassment in Egypt, a group of teenage boys in Cairo reported that “girls brought it on themselves” and criticized women who wore more tightly fitting niquabs, saying they were “wanting it.”[6] Some scholars, including Said Sadek, a sociologist at the American University in Cairo, attribute this attitude to a resurgence of Islamic fundamentalism in Egypt. He argues that more men are targeting women for harassment and assault because they believe that, in accordance with Islamic values, women should not be out in public: “they want women to go back to the home and not work,” he said.[7] However, many others deny that this problem can be blamed on a resurgence of Islam—true Islamic values emphasize respect for women—and instead credit the widespread harassment to the political and cultural instability in Egypt.

Whatever the cause, it is clear that sexual harassment in Egypt has become more than just a problem: it has created a situation wherein Egyptian women do not feel safe to leave their homes. The question has now become how to deal with the culture and mindset of harassment that seems to have become so deeply embedded in the minds of young Egyptians.

 


[1] “Egypt’s Sexual Harassment of Women ‘Epidemic.’” BBC News. 9/3/2012.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-19440656

[2] “How Egyptians are Fighting Harassment in the Streets. The Guardian. 11/5/2012.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2012/nov/05/egyptians-fighting-harassment-streets

[3] “Vigilantes Spray-Paint Sexual Harassers in Cairo.” National Public Radio. 11/1/2012. http://www.npr.org/2012/11/01/164099058/vigilantes-spray-paint-sexual-harassers-in-cairo

[4] “Egypt’s Sexual Harassment of Women ‘Epidemic.’” BBC News. 9/3/2012.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-19440656

[5] “Vigilantes Spray-Paint Sexual Harassers in Cairo.” National Public Radio. 11/1/2012. http://www.npr.org/2012/11/01/164099058/vigilantes-spray-paint-sexual-harassers-in-cairo

[6] “Egypt’s Sexual Harassment of Women ‘Epidemic.’” BBC News. 9/3/2012.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-19440656

[7] “Egypt’s Sexual Harassment of Women ‘Epidemic.’” BBC News. 9/3/2012.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-19440656

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