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Should women cover up so men can fast in Egypt?

An online campaign calling for "girls to dress modestly during Ramadan" has provoked the ire of critics who see it as a veiled call for sexual harassment under the pretext of piety.

A social media campaign calling for parents "to ensure that their daughters dress modestly in public so that citizens can fast" has sparked wide controversy in Egypt.

The online campaign, launched days ahead of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, provoked a backlash from liberal activists and women's rights advocates. It was, however, supported by conservatives in the patriarchal society. The campaign's proponents believe that immodest or revealing clothes worn by women during Ramadan distract men from their fast, an assumption that many women found insulting.

"The campaign is in fact a call for sexual harassment under the guise of fake piety," wrote Rabab Kamal, a radio broadcaster and Facebook user, in a comment published May 6 on her page. Her comment has been "liked" by more than 400 followers who clearly oppose the "modesty" push. 

"It reflects a real-life situation where men give themselves the right to approve of or punish women for what they wear," tweeted Cairo-based journalist Amira El-Fekki in criticism of the campaign's message.

Several other internet users chose to offer advice to campaign supporters who believe the sight of an uncovered woman can evoke lust that would ruin their fast.

"This is wrong. The campaign should instead call for men to be human beings, not animals, and for them to control their sexual urges," suggested one tweet.

"Are you concerned about your fast? Are you provoked by the way she dresses and find it hard to control yourself? Do you always blame women and their clothes? Try wearing 'a morality face mask' that will cover your eyes and protect you against temptation. It will help you fast without the need to preach morality to others. The face masks come in two colors: black and brown!" was another tweet ridiculing the controversial campaign. Below the comment were pictures of the brown and black "face masks": blinkers worn by horses to prevent them from seeing to the rear or to the side.

Azza Kamel, founder and chairwoman of Appropriate Communication Techniques for Development, a Cairo-based nongovernmental group, told Al-Monitor, "Ramadan is a time of fasting and reflection. It is a time for heightened spirituality and for purifying the body and soul. The people behind the campaign have closed minds and are clueless about the true meaning of the fast. Instead of focusing on worldly matters, they should focus on spiritual growth during the holy month." 

Member of parliament Mohamed El Husseiny, meanwhile, posted an online video urging those behind the campaign to "stop attacking girls.”

He said, "Rather than tell girls what to wear and what not to wear, each person should distinguish between what's right and wrong based on their conscience. … I'm not waiting for someone to tell my daughter what she can or cannot wear.”

Sexual harassment is commonplace in Egypt despite a law in place since mid-2014 outlawing all forms of harassment. A 2017 study by the international research organization Promundo and UN Women found that 60% of Egyptian women have been subjected to harassment, most commonly on public transportation or on the street. According to the report, 75% of men and 84% of women interviewed in the poll agreed that "women who dress provocatively deserve to be harassed."

In February 2016, talk show host Reham Saeed was sentenced to 18 months in prison for shaming a sexual assault victim who was a guest on her show. Saeed had suggested that the woman "deserved her fate" and showed private photos of her in revealing clothes, including a bikini. The woman said the pictures had been stolen by a member of the show's production team from her phone, which she had left with the TV crew before entering the studio. Three months later, however, Saeed was acquitted on appeal of libel, slander and violating the woman's privacy by airing the pictures. This unfortunately seemed to back the message that victims of harassment or assault invite harassment by what they wear.

Two women who complained about sexual harassment have been made to pay a dear price for speaking out. 

One of the women, Amal Fathy, a 35-year-old Egyptian pro-democracy activist and former member of the April 6 youth group that mobilized for the 2011 mass protests, has been detained since May 2018. She was arrested in a predawn raid on her home two days after posting an online video criticizing the authorities for failing to tackle sexual harassment. In the 12-minute video posted on her Facebook page, Fathy described how she was sexually harassed twice on the same day and criticized the deteriorating socio-economic conditions in the country. Four months later, she was sentenced to two years in prison on charges of "spreading false news that harms national security" and ordered to pay a fine of $560 and $1,120 in bail. 

In the case involving the second woman, a man was sentenced to a mere two weeks in prison on assault charges in 2017 but was acquitted of harassment charges even though the incident had been caught on surveillance cameras in a mall two years earlier. Upon his release from prison, he took revenge on his accuser by slashing her face with a knife, inflicting a 20-centimeter-long (8-inch) wound on her right cheek. Two months later, the woman, emotionally exhausted by the ordeal, attempted suicide on live video by overdosing on anti-depressant pills but was rescued by a friend who rushed her to hospital. In June 2018, her attacker was sentenced to one year in prison.

There have only been a few rare cases in which men have been actually punished for the crime of harassment. In August 2017, a tuk tuk driver was handed a five-year jail sentence and ordered to pay a fine of 1,000 Egyptian pounds (about $59) after he was convicted in a sexual harassment case, the first such harsh ruling for harassment in Egypt. 

The online campaign urging women to cover up during Ramadan also sparked a heated public debate about hijab, the headscarf traditionally worn by some Muslim women.

In a TV interview broadcast on the private channel CBC, Ahmed al-Tayeb, the grand sheikh of Al-Azhar, said that while Muslim women were not obliged to wear the full face veil, or niqab — although wearing it is "permissible" — they are required to cover their hair. 

"The Quran tells Muslim women to wear a headscarf but those who choose not to should not be considered deviants from the faith; labeling them as such is in itself a sin," he told the interviewer.

"There are bigger sins than not wearing hijab," he added, citing lying and gossiping as two such "major sins.”

His remarks prompted a backlash from Amna Nosseir, a member of parliament and professor of jurisprudence at Al-Azhar University. "Women do not need guardianship," she said in a telephone interview broadcast on the privately owned channel Al Hadath Al Youm. "A woman's modesty is not just in her appearance or style of dress. She should pay equal attention to her behavior and manners and dress according to the times we live in. That said, modesty is part of a woman's beauty and dignity; she should wear what she likes without attracting too much attention. No one is our guardian save for our Lord who will judge us on Judgment Day."

But despite the denunciation of the campaign by rights advocates, critics feel that more can be done to address Egypt's "harassment epidemic.” Women's awareness of their rights, continued coverage by the media and enforcement of the anti-harassment law are key in curbing harassment," Kamel told Al-Monitor. 

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