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A Majority of Cairo Women Face Street Harassment

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.

Female Marriage-Maker Raises Gender Issues in Egypt

CAIRO, Egypt (WOMENSENEWS)--Amal Soliman did not realize how large a controversy would erupt here when she sought to become Egypt's first female "maazun," or Islamic public notary who performs wedding ceremonies and authorizes marriage and divorce certificates.

"I knew it was going to be a little bit in the press, but I didn't really think it would be such a big deal," Soliman says about her February selection by local government officials. "It is what it is and I don't want to have politics as a part of the discussion of me being a maazun because I am a simple housewife who wants to work close to home and raise my kids."

Religious leaders have both condemned and endorsed her selection. Her status was significant enough to require the government to approve it. But she's not brandishing it in a quest for equal rights and recoils from having her appointment politicized.

"I don't want people, especially the West, to take me as a victory for women in Egypt and the Middle East," she says. "I am Egyptian and a Muslim so what I am doing is for here and not for the West."

Already, people know about the "female maazun" in her town of Qaniyat, an hour east of Cairo. "They point you in the direction of 'Madame Soliman's house' if you ask," she says.

People knock on her door every day to be married, even though she still waits for official permission to work from the national justice ministry. She has heard about others, though, who will stay away.

"Some people have said that I am not appropriate to be a maazun because I am a woman," she says, "but I am confident this will fade with time."

Sought Employment, Not Controversy

Soliman, a 32-year-old mother of three, applied for the position when it became vacant after her father-in-law passed away. The job is not inherited, and there are hundreds of maazuns in Egypt, one for each local district.

"I didn't really think about the gender issue when I applied for the job," she says. "It was close to my house and I needed something so close by so I could still be at home for my kids."

Ten others, all men, applied to fill the vacancy. Soliman had a master's degree in law from Zagazig University as well as law and criminal justice diplomas and had the highest qualifications.

Justice Minister Mamdouh Marei has sought to relieve tensions among Egypt's powerful Islamic scholars, saying that Soliman's nomination was based "on her abilities rather than on her gender." A year ago, 30 women were appointed as judges in response to activists' complaints that Egypt lagged in female participation in the judiciary.

"Everyone is beginning to recognize women's rights and women's potential," Hanan Abdel-Aziz, one of the appointed judges, told the state press at the time.

Egypt has stood out among Arab nations in women's participation in many aspects of life and politics. Suffrage was granted in 1956, ahead of most others in the region. Women are about 30 percent of the private professional and technical work force, but few are high officials in the government.

Detecting Forced Marriages

One of Soliman's responsibilities will be to ensure there is no coercion behind a wedding, particularly when younger brides are involved. As many as one in three weddings are forced upon the woman, who is often under 18, according to the Egyptian Center for Women's Rights in Cairo.

"As a woman I will be better able to find out if the girl wants to get married and if she is being forced into the agreement by an outside party," Soliman says. "I wanted to take this position because it gives women and girls who are getting married a real opportunity to take action."

Ibrahim Abdel Salam, 26, an employee at a Cairo cafe, nonetheless objects. "It is wrong to have a woman in this position. My sheikh tells me that if we are to get married that we must avoid her because she can't do the job."

"I know that women are not as strong as men," says Heba Mahmoud, a female student at Cairo University who, like many young people here, embraces conservative Islam, which is growing in influence in Egypt. "That is why some jobs are supposed to remain in the hands of men. She can't do the job. I mean, there are so many reasons that she can't, but when it comes down to it, women are not made to be in positions of power."

Islamic scholars are divided about a woman having legal responsibility for marriage and divorce. A devout Muslim, Soliman embraces the view that Islam does not bar women from having a career in anything.

"Islam is pro-women's rights and it is social customs that put women's rights backward," she says.

No Religious Prohibition

No religious texts ban a female maazun, says Sheikh Fawzi Zefzaf, deputy director of Al-Azhar University, an influential center of Sunni Muslim theology. "But when a woman is menstruating she must not enter a mosque or read Quranic verses and that will affect her job, so for this reason we say it is not advisable to have a woman maazun," the sheikh said in a statement from his office.

Soliman says she will conduct home visits with couples who need her authority to avoid breaking Islamic law and an assistant will be able to work in the mosque when she is forbidden to enter.

"This is an opportunity for women to show that they have a right to be in such positions and the Arab and Islamic world need to accept this and move forward," says Mohamed Serag, a professor of Islamic studies at the American University in Cairo.

The profession used to be "a man's business" and the controversy will pass, Serag says. "She is a public notary, not an official representative of Islam and this needs to be understood."

The manner in which some scholars are downgrading the maazun's importance is disconcerting to Aida Seif Al Dawla, a leading activist. She wonders "why was it all over the press" if Soliman's job is inconsequential.

"This is a precedent for women in Egypt no matter what anyone says," Seif Al Dawla says. "Since when has getting married not been important? I say good for her for taking this step."

Soliman says a female maazun is more likely to be readily accepted in Cairo, where people are "more open" than in her own town. But the time has arrived for women to enter the profession.

"I think Egypt is ready for this."

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