Like thousands of young women, Noha Rushdi has been exposed to sexual harassment ranging from annoying glances up to explicit abuse. But unlike those who keep quiet for fear of being ostracised by society, Rushdi decided to make a report.
Ms Rushdi was assaulted one afternoon last June when she was walking along Khalifa al-Ma’moun Street in Heliopolis. She was suddenly attacked by a passing driver who reached out from his mini-truck and grabbed her breast. “I was so hurt that I was about to lose consciousness,” she recalls. “I tried to push him away with all my strength, but he did not let go. I fell to the ground and started screaming. He began to drive away, and I saw he was wearing a vicious smile. He looked like a professional-like harasser. I felt deeply insulted and infuriated. Fortunately, a car came in the opposite direction, so the truck had to stop. I ran and jumped on the front of the truck car’s so as not to let him get away. I don’t know how I found all that courage. I was even ready to be run down by his car as long as he would be punished.”
Blaming the woman
“When I fell off his car people began to gather round: most of them were shop assistants and employees. They asked what had happened, and I said he had sexually harassed me. Strangely enough, some of them tried to help the driver to drive his truck off, but others told me that they would make him apologise. I was furious. I tried to tell them that it’s not as though he’d merely stepped on my toes; this guy had sexually harassed me and I was not willing to let that go. Again, they wondered what I expected. I said I would take him to the police. One passer-by said, ‘I don’t understand what you want. If you can’t accept that men behave this way then stay at home.’
“Unfortunately, all the people who witnessed the incident were passive. Another man said, ‘Look at what you are wearing!’—bearing in mind that I was wearing loose clothes. People just know how to repeat clichés and assume all the time that the woman is the one to blame. The only woman who thought she could help me came near and advised me to leave the scene to save myself more humiliation. Meanwhile, my friend sought assistance from the nearest police station, but the police officer told her simply it was none of their business and that we should call the ‘emergency police’ if we wished.”
Is she out of her mind?
“A young man who was at the scene and felt sorry for me managed to drag the driver to the station. The only comment I heard from the crowd was, ‘Is she crazy?’
“When we got to the station, the officer in charge called another policeman, but he didn’t show up. The officer told me I was mortifying myself by reporting the incident. I told him I had studied law and I knew my rights. The officer took my statement but he did not ask my friend or the young man, who were witnesses. Then he told me that there was no car to take the driver to the main police station, and bluntly asked me to take him in my car. My father had arrived by that time and he took him in our car to Heliopolis Police Station, accompanied by a police officer, to authenticate the report. The driver tried to apologise, which meant that he admitted guilt, but when he was standing before the prosecutor he denied everything. The prosecutor encouraged me and told me that I was brave to report the crime.
“My biggest shock was the ignorance of people whose attitudes bore no trace of so-called manliness. These people are ready to stand and fight with a taxi driver and not defend a helpless young woman who was sexually harassed, and after all they claim to be religious. Strangely, even a lawyer at the station asked me if I was out of my mind.”
Poor conscience; no penalty
Ms Rushdi says the only people who backed her decision were her parents. “My father was proud that I did not give up my rights,” she says.
Fadia Abu-Shabha, professor of criminal law at the National Centre for Criminal and Social Research (NCCSR), says 20,000 cases of rape and sexual harassment are reported every year, and 90 per cent of rapists are unemployed. A UN report issued eight years ago said 45.5 per cent of the women living in Cairo were subject to different forms of sexual harassment, but only 5.2 per cent reported incidents to the police. Women are not only subject to harassment on the streets or in means of transport, but also suffer at work, especially from their superiors. Many find themselves in a critical position since they stand to lose their jobs if they fight back.
As to why harassment has suddenly mushroomed to unprecedented proportions, is the question everyone is trying to find an answer for.
Psychologist Ahmed Abdullah goes so far as to say that 60 per cent of women have been subject to sexual harassment in childhood, whether orally, being touched, or being exposed to pornography. Dr Abdullah believes that this is due to an absence both of conscience and legal penalty. He says some men do not have a suitable outlet for their repression and their desires are therefore transcribed into violence or corruption.
In the family
Broken families are a major cause for psychological disturbance, Dr Abdullah says, which may lead men to express their sexual need explicitly with no moral limits. Some attribute the tendency of men to see women as nothing more than sex objects to the image propagated by the media of women as witless, hollow creatures.
The spread of randomly built districts and crammed housing may lead some people to look for physical satisfaction by any available means. Some men derive emotional satisfaction by feeling they can subdue a woman, asserting thus their masculine dominance.
Azza Karim, an expert at NCCSR, believes society is seeing an ascending rate of parental violence, disrespect by children of their parents, and sex crime. She relates this to pressing economic and social conditions. The more young people feel they are burdened the more they begin to look for a way of escape; in many cases they rebel against conventional norms and start acting in a disgraceful manner. Karim believes that research centres do not study these negative trends for fear of tarnishing Egypt’s image.
Many parents also evade discussing sex awareness with their children and this may lead them to look for information by wrong means or try to discover what the other sex is really like through harassment.
The problem is not what women wear, because many veiled women are also victims of harassment. It is still the backward male perspective that regards women as inferior and gives men the right to mistreat and abuse them. Shocking statistics reveal that 35 per cent of women are beaten by their husbands, and 69 per cent are beaten if they refuse intimate relations.
Spread of religiosity
All these studies, nonetheless, failed to discuss whether there was any relation between the ever-widening wave of Islamism sweeping through our society and the proportional spread of harassment. Maybe, a woman who wished to remain anonymous said, our Islamic scholars should devote more time and energy to educating men on respect of women.
The Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights has asked the Ministry of Interior to take severe measures against harassers after a series of incidents of sexual harassment that took place in broad daylight. It recommended some tips for women to enjoy safety in the street in Egypt, among them installing CCTV cameras and setting up a special force to combat harassment.
The centre has moreover set up two hotlines, 02-37154562 and 02-3715 4557 for victims of harassment, through which legal help and psychological support are offered