Human Rights

"They Ogle, Touch, Use the Filthiest Language Imaginable": Why is Sexual Harrassment on the Rise in Egypt?

According to women in Cairo, the intensity of street-level sexual harassment has increased in the past decade.

As night falls over Egypt’s capital, youth gather along the banks of the Nile where a carnivalesque atmosphere prevails.

Tamer and Mido have taken up positions on the railing next to the river. As a group of veiled teenage girls approaches, the duo works in tandem. Tamer removes the girls’ headscarves with his eyes, while sexually nuanced words roll off Mido’s tongue.

"Girls love the attention -- it makes them feel attractive," says Mido, an engineering student, as the girls divert their eyes to the pavement and nervously scurry past. "They pretend to be innocent, but it’s just part of the game they play."

Women insist it is no game. They say the amount, and intensity of street-level sexual harassment has increased in the past decade.

The journey home from school or work can require running a gauntlet of gropes and taunts. "I’ve encountered every form of sexual harassment from men on the streets," complains Dina El-Sherbiny, a 31-year-old office administrator. "They ogle, touch, use the filthiest language imaginable."

A study published last year by the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights (ECWR) found that 46 percent of the 1,000 women who were surveyed, were harassed on a daily basis.

"The results were a shock for us -- this was not the Egyptian hospitality we knew, and it was not compatible with all our ideas about harassment," ECWR chairwoman Nehad Abu El-Komsan told IPS.

"As women, we follow our grandmother’s advice -- not to come home late, walk in a crowded area because people can protect you, and never walk down a dark or empty street -- we know all this very well," she says. "But what [our research showed] was something completely different from the stereotypes we had -- sexual harassment occurring in crowded areas, people not responding to a women when she asks for help, and comments from men that were just hurtful."

Contrary to expectations, the male perpetrators made little distinction between women wearing the Islamic veil and those who were not. "We found that a veil does not protect women as we thought," says Abu El-Komsan. "Already more than 50 percent of women in Egypt are veiled and yet still harassed, and 9 percent wear niqab [a veil that covers head to toe], so they are fully covered."

Fatma, a 26-year-old language instructor who wears a veil, says sexual harassment is most common in crowded areas where it is much harder for women to defend against lewd comments or gropings. "When a man quickly brushes up against me or grabs me in public there is very little I can do," she says. "It’s a crowded place and it’s very difficult to prove their action was deliberate, and in any case they usually quickly disappear into the crowd."

The worst offenders are often too young to shave. Fatma says groups of school boys swarm her as she walks home from work or takes public transport. Bystanders rarely come to her aid.

"The age of chivalry is over," she says. "Witnesses will pretend they haven’t seen anything, or will just stand around and watch as if it’s a movie. As for the authorities, I’m sorry to say, but if I seek the help of a policeman on the street… chances are he’s going to harass me himself."

Sociologists attribute a rise in sexual harassment to frustration resulting from difficult economic conditions that prevent young Egyptian men from marrying, while sex outside of wedlock is forbidden. They also cite the proliferation of sexual imagery on television, a rise in religious extremism, and the absence of any clear law that criminalises sexual harassment.

Research has shown that the majority of women do not report incidents to the police either because they feel their complaint will not be taken seriously, or it will result in greater humiliation.

"If I go to the police they will deny that I was harassed, or ask why I was walking alone without my husband, or make me feel I did something wrong," says El-Sherbiny. "Nothing will happen to the man who abused me. Instead, I will suffer more indignity."

Men often claim women provoke sexual harassment by wearing "immodest" or tight-fitting clothing. Some Islamic groups have used this charge to reinforce their own campaigns for women to dress conservatively and adopt the veil.

"Religion is used as an excuse," says Asmaa, a 25-year-old bank teller, who claims she is frequently harassed at work and on the streets. "The first thing people do is blame it on the girls. No one mentions that religion also tells men and women to lower their gaze."

Egyptian officials often play down the extent of the problem. In October 2006, a mob of young men tore off the clothes of women during a public holiday celebration in Cairo while police looked on. The government initially denied the incident occurred; then a video surfaced on the internet.

The public outrage and lobbying that followed appears to have stirred a change in attitude. The government has begun to acknowledge the scale of the problem and police are more willing to intervene, says Abu El-Komsan. "The level of security has improved -- not 100 percent, but improved."

Last October, 27-year-old filmmaker Noha Roshdy won a landmark legal battle against a man who stopped his vehicle in front of her on a busy street and grabbed her breast. The court sentenced the man to three years in jail and ordered him to pay a 900 dollar-fine as compensation.

"This case had a huge influence on society," says Abu El-Komsan. "The media coverage and family support given to Noha Roshdy encouraged families to support their daughters. In the two weeks following the [verdict], we had four women come forward to say they wanted to file a police report. Before, we could have gone a year without having anyone coming forward."

Rights groups say legislation criminalising sexual harassment is needed to protect women and ensure offenders are duly punished. A draft law currently under review by parliament proposes fines and prison sentences according to the nature of the verbal or physical assault.

Abu El-Komsan sees positive development in the government’s willingness to discuss legislation after a long period of denial and casting the blame on women. "Sexual harassment is a problem that is not unique to Egypt," she says. "The shame is to deny it, not to face it."

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