Sexual Harassment in Egypt: Women Are People, Too

Egyptian novelist Alaa al-Aswany criticizes Egyptian society for not taking a strong stance against sexual harassment. He argues that this problem is mainly due to society’s lack of respect toward women.

al-monitor A woman walks past graffiti in support Prophet Muhammad along Mohamed Mahmoud street near Tahrir Square in Cairo.  Photo by REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh.

Topics covered

women’s rights, sexual harassment

Nov 10, 2012

I know a young woman in her twenties who dresses modestly, with her head scarf always firmly planted around her hair and neck. She was walking in the streets in broad daylight when a young man began to harass her viciously. She attempted to ward him off, but he was stronger than she and persisted in his harassment. To her good fortune, a policeman happened to be standing nearby. He arrested the young man and took him down to the local police station. On their way to the precinct, the young woman was surprised to find that everyone she encountered — both men and women — attempted to convince her to abandon the proceedings against the harasser out of concern for his future. One woman who had witnessed the exchange even spoke harshly to the victimized woman and angrily said to her: "Shame on you! Let the boy say he's sorry and go on his way. Better that than ruin his entire future!"

These people knew that the young man had harassed the woman. Doubtless they had daughters and sisters of their own and would never stand for anyone harassing them. But none of them believed that the situation called for legal action against the harasser; instead they felt that protecting the young man's future was far more important than punishing him for his crime.

If the young man had been a thief or a murderer, would they have shown the same degree of empathy and forgiveness? If the young man had been a Copt, a Baha'i or a Shiite and criticized Islam in an unacceptable (to them) manner, would they be so forgiving? Or would they publicly beat him and demand he be put on trial? We all know the answer.

Egyptians are generally not forgiving toward any manner of crime, with the exception of sexual harassment. In these cases, they consider the perpetrator "a misguided kid." Regarding the outcome, they say "it turned out alright in the end," and regarding prosecution they say "it's not worth it."

Egyptians' tolerance for sexual harassment does not stem from generic kind-heartedness, but rather from their broader views of women. We say that women comprise half of society; they are our sisters, daughters, wives and all the other cliché formulations that we repeat night and day. But the truth is we rarely show real respect for women. The people who called on the young woman to forgive the man harassing her didn't really think harassment was a crime. In their minds, all the youth did was grab a woman's body. They didn't think of the woman as a person whose feelings had been insulted and whose dignity had been violated when she was harassed. She was just a body covered in cloth that was rubbed once or twice, and that's the end of it. As long as the girl kept her virginity intact — for her eventual husband will see to it that no one uses her sexually before he does — she'll be fine.

Sexual harassment is the practical manifestation of our contempt for women. We no longer respect women in Egypt. I say "no longer" because women in Egypt had for decades experienced a culture of true respect. Egyptian women were pioneers in education, entering the work force, and public service. That is, until Wahhabi interpretations of Islam (supported by oil wealth) began to penetrate Egypt. In the Wahhabi view, women's role is confined to her bodily functions, and whole generations of Egyptians were raised to think that women are nothing but an instrument of pleasure that must be covered and hidden away from men so that they do not fall victim to her enticements. And today we see Wahhabi-Salafist sheikhs refusing to see any minimum age of consent for marrying a woman in the Egyptian constitution because they believe that it is a man's right to marry a woman even if she is a child of ten, “so long as she can physically bear copulation,” as one of their sheikhs put it. These men do not believe that women require any mental or emotional maturity beyond that possessed by a sexually-mature child. A woman to them is nothing but a pleasure machine that a man has the right to use as long as they will not be damaged or rendered inoperable.

I ask our male readers: when we see a woman for the first time, what draws our attention more? Her wits and her intelligence…or her legs and chest? We all know the answer. Women have been divested of their humanity and this is the basic impetus for the spread of sexual harassment throughout Egypt. During the holidays groups of young men appear, roaming the streets like wandering animals seeking to harass any woman they chance to come upon. A study was recently conducted by the Egyptian Center for Women's Rights in 2008, covering some 1,010 women, both foreigners and native Egyptians. According to the results it appears that 98% of foreign women and 83% of Egyptian women were subjected to some form of sexual harassment. This barbaric phenomenon is basically foreign to Egyptian society, even as some generally attempt to explain it away unconvincingly.

They say, for example, that harassment is a result of women donning provocative clothing. This bizarre logic holds the victim at fault while exonerating the offender for committing the offense. If a woman wears clothes that reveal, say, her arms, this simply cannot be considered a justification for assaulting her or depriving her of the right to being treated with respect. The difference between humans and animals is that humans are capable of controlling their desires; justifying harassment on the grounds of provocative clothing presents us with logic that could be used to justify all crimes. Why, for example, should we blame thieves for pilfering the money of others? If the thief is poor, surely he cannot resist the temptation of wealth. By the same token, why hold accountable a man who steals a fancy car? He surely longs for such a car, but lacks the means to buy it; when he sees it in front of him, how can he resist his urge to steal it?

Whatever clothes a woman wears, harassing her is simply a base, barbaric crime. The strange thing is that most women in Egypt are Muslims and veiled, so one cannot even begin to speak about 'provocative clothing'. Indeed, women's dress simply has no bearing on the spread of sexual harassment. Anyone who cares to argue otherwise must consider the following:

For several decades, and up until the 1970s, Egyptian women were predominately unveiled. They wore modern clothes that left portions of their bodies uncovered, went to the beach and swam in the sea wearing swimsuits that showed off their legs. And despite all this, there was never any harassment. Why then are women wearing veils that cover the hair, or even the face, being subjected to sexual harassment when the women of the 1970s who wore dresses and mini-skirts were not? The answer is that we used look upon women with a measure of respect, seeing them as people and not mere bodies.

We used to view women as human beings who simply happened to be females, just as men are human beings who simply happen to be males. One cannot respect women or see them as beings with discerning minds and sensitive hearts, and then sexually harass them. Whoever harasses women does so because he considers them no more than a body owned by a husband or father. When someone who thinks in this way can't buy themselves 'a body' via marriage contract in order to gratify their desires, and is merely looking for opportunities to grope other women and then flee from punishment, of course he won't hesitate to harass them.

Another widespread interpretation of harassment is that it stems from the mixing of men and women. This view is also incorrect. Egyptian society knew gender integration for many long years without being encumbered by sexual harassment. Closed societies that forbid women and men from interacting have a higher rate of sexual harassment than gender-mixed societies. When society forbids men from seeing women or interacting with them in school, at mosque or at work, men then become ignorant of the proper way to interact with women. They become unaccustomed to seeing a woman as a colleague deserving of respect; instead she becomes transformed in his eyes into an instrument of pleasure inaccessible to him. From here, most often, he turns to harassment to snatch what pleasure he can at the first opportunity.

Reviewing statistics provided by the international news agency Reuters, one finds that Saudi Arabia is ranked third highest among 24 states for the frequency of sexual harassment in the workplace. The study shows that, of the 12,000 women interviewed from two dozen countries, roughly 16% of women working in Saudi Arabia were subjected to sexual harassment by their supervisors at work. The study further shows that the rate of sexual harassment in Saudi Arabia (16%) is far higher than in the US (a rate of 8%), which in turn is higher than Spain (6%), Germany (5%) and Britain (4%), while France and Sweden come in at the bottom of the list, tied at a mere 3%.

Through such figures we can see how more open societies experience a far lower degree of sexual harassment than do closed ones.

At this point, Islamists will naturally rise up and indignantly ask: How can Western states, that permit sexual relations outside of marriage, suffer from a lower rate of harassment than Islamic societies where people are naturally religious? The answer is that tolerating sexual relations outside of marriage does not in any way license harassment or any other sexual crime. Western society allows every person, whether male or female, married or unmarried, the right to engage in sexual relations. They view sex as a private matter, something for which people should not be judged or held accountable. There, society judges an individual based on his actions and his dealings with others, and leaves his private life to him alone.

As for the notion that we in Egypt are a religious people by our very nature, this too should be reconsidered. How can we claim to be a religious people in Egypt when 83% of our women are subject to sexual harassment? More than any other people, we are eager to preserve the outward appearance of religiosity, yet in our actions we are the least in accord with religious principles. Before the spread of the Wahhabi influence, Egyptians were less interested in the outward forms of religion and more interested in acting in accordance with religious principles. Now, however, we have given priority to the religion of forms and procedures while abandoning the substance of faith. Many Egyptians are scrupulous about saying their prayers, fasting or making pilgrimage to Mecca, but are nevertheless untrustworthy in their financial dealings, lie to their superiors at work, fail to speak up for what is right and do whatever serves their personal interests, regardless of how morally questionable it may be.

Sexual harassment is but one of the symptoms of a cultural disease that has stricken Egyptian society: holding women in contempt. It is the disease of viewing a woman as a woman first, before anything else. It is the disease of reducing a woman to her body and taking no interest in her feelings, her mind or her capacity as a human being. It is the disease of viewing a woman as a means of pleasuring men, whether acquired through a marriage contract or illicitly enjoyed by groping in crowded places.

The amazing thing is that the Egyptian revolution has returned us to the civilized view of women. Millions of women participated in the revolution; for over three weeks, Tahrir Square and the other revolutionary squares did not witnesses a single instance of sexual harassment. It is as if Egypt, when it rose up in revolt automatically regained all the attributes of civilizations. We cannot prevent sexual harassment unless we recover our respect for women and unless we learn to see women as human beings equal to men in capabilities, rights, feelings and in dignity. Only then will we no longer stalk women for their bodies, or stare at her legs. Only then will we discover that which is vastly more important: that she is a human being.

Democracy is the solution.

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