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A Majority of Cairo Women Face Street Harassment

The streets of Cairo continue to be unsafe for women despite activist attempts to draw attention to verbal and physical abuse in public spaces.
 
 
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CAIRO: Being an Egyptian woman is to accept sexual harassment as daily routine, according to a recent report from the Egyptian Center for Women's Rights (ECWR). The study outlines, 60 percent of Egyptian women and 98 percent of foreign women are harassed on a daily basis.

This is not a new problem. In fact, the problem has been simmering silently since the fall of 2006, when dozens of men and boys attacked and assaulted women outside a downtown a Cairo cinema. In a mob style attack, the perpetrators attempted to grope and tear at any passing woman's clothes in the October attack.

Street harassment globally includes a wide range of verbal and nonverbal acts, including whistles, jeers, winks, grabs, pinches, public displays and often the use of foul and offensive language. Extreme cases can accelerate into physical attacks where clothing is ripped and a woman is bruised, cut or injured.

No woman is left unharmed by acts of street harassment. Exposure to such acts of public humiliation that result in verbal or physical assault are often ignored by the police. In Cairo this is due to the lack of protective enforcement of Egyptian laws.

Although articles 268 and 306 of the Egyptian Penal Code touch on issues rising out of extreme sexual harassment on the streets of Cairo, the specific legal wording to aid in protecting women exists nowhere in the code. This makes prosecution very difficult and extremely rare.

"There is no law criminalizing sexual harassment in Egypt," says New York based and award-winning Washington Post columnist, Mona Eltahawy. A native of Egypt, international speaker on Arab and Muslim issues and former reporter for Reuters news in Cairo and Jerusalem, Eltahawy has been vigilant in her stand on human rights and women's rights.

"Police often refuse to report women's complaints," added Eltahawy. "And when it is the police themselves who are harassing women, then clearly women's safety is far from a priority in Egypt."

The 1993 Harvard Law Review report, "Street Harassment and the Informal Ghettoization of Women," by Cynthia Grant Bowman, Cornell Law School professor and Gender Studies professor from Northwestern University, outlines the need for specific criminal and civil laws to protect women in public. Street harassment globally has one insidious and common denominator, the use of words that include extreme sexual innuendo and profanity.

"Fighting words statutes seem to offer an appropriate remedy for many kinds of street harassment," says Professor Bowman in her report. "They encompass personal, face-to-face insults that cannot possibly be described as political discourse; they apply to 'threatening, profane or obscene revilings'; and they turn upon the reaction of the hearer rather than upon the intent of the speaker or harasser."

Although the ACLU -- American Civil Liberties Union has come out strongly in opposition defending the use of 'fighting words' as free speech under United States law code, it does lean in the favor in the prosecution of "acts of violence, harassment or intimidation and invasions of privacy."

"The ACLU recognizes that the mere presence of speech as one element in an act of violence, harassment, intimidation or privacy invasion doesn't immunize that act from punishment," said the organization in a 1994 "Hate Speech on Campus" report.

On the streets of Cairo in 2006, eyewitnesses and citizen reporters' pictures were clear proof that terror against women had taken place, despite denials by police and the Ministry of Interior. Some of the photos revealed police watching from a distance in amusement and indifference to the women's predicament.

The event proved to be the breaking point for women, and some men, in removing their heads from the sand. It was the first time women had spoken out about the issue, taking to the streets in demonstrations against this enduring social problem.

"Not only do we not have the space and the freedom to do it (demonstrate) but also some of us women got harassed by police officers," says Mona, a 25-year-old Egyptian girl who attended her first demonstration following the 2006 attacks.

"I went with my sister and her friends and I saw one of her friends screaming at a couple of soldiers for harassing her," Mona added. "The irony was unbelievable."

Two years on from those horrific events in downtown Cairo, and despite the few instances of activism that brought false hope for change, women complain about the same issues, according to the ECWR study. The statistics reveal a difficult reality; 60 percent of women answered that they are harassed every day. This includes both verbal and physical abuse.

Making matters complicated, approximately 70 percent of the men surveyed admitted to participating in harassing women, not taking matters seriously and even blaming women.

Mohsen Reda, an Egyptian Member of Parliament, said women should be dressed more modestly as "a lot of our youth can't afford marriage so it is only normal for some harassment to take place."

Are women in Egypt not dressed appropriately? "That is funny," began Dola, a 55-year-old mother of two young women when asked about modesty in Egypt's busy streets. "Of course he is talking about another nation. If you walk down the street you will see the truth: women are modest. Sure, you may see a small percentage of young college girls who like to dress in fashion, but that is it," she added.

"Women with headscarves are harassed all the time, too," the mother argued.

"At 15, I was groped as I was performing the rites of the hajj pilgrimage at Mecca, the holiest site for Muslims. Every part of my body was covered except for my face and hands. I'd never been groped before and burst into tears, but I was too ashamed to explain to my family what had happened," said journalist Mona Eltahawy in a July 27, 2008 article for the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies.

Foreign women in Cairo, according to the ECWR study, have an even more difficult situation. 98 percent of foreigners are harassed, and in some reported instances, more violently than locals.

Asma, a 29-year-old masters student retells the story of an Italian friend. "She was walking in downtown in the afternoon wearing cotton sporty pants and a t-shirt when a man came from behind and set part of her bottom on fire with a lighter and sprinted off," the Egyptian student says of her friend. The Italian woman had third degree burns and "a wish to not come back here (to Egypt) again."

The ECWR warned that harassing foreign women would lead to the loss of millions of pounds. A number of foreigners said they would never return to Egypt. 14 percent of all foreign women said they would either never return to Egypt or tell their friends not to visit, which could put a damper on the country's number one source of income: tourism.

Despite the report and documented harassment, little has been done to prevent the situation from worsening.

Nehad Abu Komsan, the chairwoman of the ECWR, is optimistic on the future. She believes more women are willing to speak out about their experiences.

"The problem is that women did not have the ability to talk," she begins, "and they feel the shame and were afraid to talk, but now they are more free to talk and they know that they are not alone and this is not their fault."

Komsan argues that this has helped Egyptian society understand what is going on and will help to solve this social issue. An important aspect of her work is helping to develop society as a whole, not only within the activist community.

"It is not important to be a woman figure or a women defender. Women are an essential part of society, so as long as they are active in different fields they will defend their rights and other people's rights," she adds.

She pointed to recently appointed Islamic notary, known as a 'maazun' in Arabic, Amal Soliman. The lawyer is the first female maazun in the Islamic world's history, and the 32-year-old mother does not want to be seen as an activist despite the attention her new job has brought.

"Sure, this was expected, although I didn't think it would take this long," said Soliman, who holds a master's degree in law from Zagazig University. The Ministry of Justice has yet to give her the green light to begin work after months of waiting.

Like many obstacles in Egypt, men are guarding the entrance to the male dominated field, but Soliman expects to begin work before the year's end.

She also has numerous law and criminal justice diplomas, which gave her the credentials to beat out 10 male candidates for the vacancy in her hometown of Qanayit just north of Cairo.

Amal Soliman didn't believe gender would be a factor in the position when she applied, although she has long since gotten over that shock.

"I never thought that my gender would be a big deal, at least not as big of a deal it has become," she added.

This piece originally appeared on Women News Network.

Joseph Mayton is a Cairo-based journalist whose work regularly appears in the Middle East Times, World Politics Review and other region-focused publications.

 
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