Egyptian women are now getting a new tool to combat sexual harassment – HarrasMap. Based on text messages sent by victims to a centralized computer, the project aims to establish a map of hotspots where assaults have frequently happened. After reporting the incidents to authorities, it is hoped that police will increase their presence in the most exposed places. The private initiative also emphasizes its role in counseling victims of sexual harassment. It pledges to provide them with relevant information about services and laws existing to protect them.
Part of Daily Life
While waiting for the metro, riding in taxi cabs, or just popping into a nearby market women are at times given unpleasant attention. Dealing with ogling, inappropriate comments, and whistling is an essential part of daily life for a significant majority of Egyptian women.
“Every woman in Egypt suffers from sexual harassment,” says a young veiled girl who declined to be identified. “The most common forms are addressing women in inappropriate words or just staring at her.” And she’s not the only person who feels that way, either. In fact, the idea of being harassed in Egypt is just as natural as the hot weather.
According to “Clouds in Egypt’s Sky,” a 2008 survey by the Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights (the only survey of its kind), only 17% of Egyptian women and 2% of foreign women have not been exposed to some form of sexual harassment, including ogling, verbal abuse, stalking, or indecent exposure. The survey not only implies that sexual harassment is rampant, but more significantly, that it seems to be tacitly accepted by both men and women as a natural aspect of daily life. Naturally, a crucial question arises: why is this so?
Who is the Victim?
Identifying the causes of sexual harassment should, logically speaking, lead to a sort of guideline for solving the problem. But before this happens, we must first establish a correct awareness of the relationship between the perpetrator and the victim. Who, then, is the perpetrator and who is the victim in the story of sexual harassment? Unfortunately, the answer is not as obvious as it may seem to be.
According to the aforementioned survey, more than half of Egyptian men think that the cause of harassment is the women’s appearance and their style of dress. In most cases, the participants of the survey claimed that women and girls who do not wear hijab or niqab are more likely to be harassed.
Some religious leaders agree with that analysis, including Egyptian cleric Sa‘d ‘Arafāt, who went even further, stating on Al-Rahma television:
“Many girls complain that when they walk down the street, they are harassed by boys and men. If a woman sits on a bus, or any other means of transportation, she is harassed by the man on her right or the man on her left. I say to the woman: You are the cause and reason for this.”
Arafat’s opinion cannot and should not be perceived as being reflective of all Egyptian clerics. Nevertheless, several uneasy questions arise. Is it women who are to be blamed? Are they the actual perpetrators of sexual harassment because of the way they dress? Contrary to popular opinion, the survey suggests that the appearance of the victim is not the determining factor in sexual harassment cases, as almost three-quarters of the victims interviewed were wearing hijab or niqab at the time of the incident.
If the dress of women is not the determining factor in sexual harassment, then what is? Essentially, the attention should be directed to the actual inflictor of the sexual harassment. Our acts, deeds, and words are the results of our decisions. The same applies for sexual harassers. Their acts are based upon their decision to do so. They are the active part in the story of sexual harassment; meanwhile their victims play the role of passive objects of their interest, regardless of the actual appropriateness of her dress.
Acknowledgment of Sexual Harassment as a Significant Problem
Deciding to speak out about the problem is essential. Such an example is Noha Rushdi who was exposed to sexual harassment on her way home in Heliopolis, Cairo. Unlike those who keep quiet for fear of being ostracized by society, Rushdi decided to report harassment to the authorities.
Rushdi was 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."
However, the problem is not only the existence of sexual harassment, but also in the tacit acceptance of those who witness it. As Noha Rushdi further describes, “When I fell off his car people began to gather round. They asked what had happened. 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 apologize. 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.’ Another man said, ‘Look at what you are wearing!’—bearing in mind that I was wearing loose clothes.”
The incident of Noha Rushdi not only reveals the negative impact of tacitly acknowledged behavior but also highlights the distorted assumption about the dress style that allegedly “asks for such a response.” Rushdi sadly adds, “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.”
Where to Look for the Cause of Sexual Harassment?
Yet, positioning sexual harassment as a societal problem is only the first step in overcoming it. Sexual harassment might have more profound roots related to the poor economic situation, family relations, and religious values deeply embodied in Egyptian society.
Psychologist Dr. Ahmed Abdullah believes that the causes of sexual harassment and its abundant occurrence are due to an absence of relevant conscience. He argues that broken families are a major cause for psychological disturbance, which may lead men to express their sexual need explicitly with no moral limits. Azza Karim, an expert at the National Centre for Criminal and Social Research, draws the attention to pressing economic and social conditions. According to Karim, 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.
Nevertheless, the poor economic situation of many young people, as well as the tabooed nature of premarital sex might be of some additional significance. After the graduation, many young Egyptian men are expected to fund their living and save money for their future family. This becomes an increasingly difficult task in a country with growing rates of unemployment among young people. Young men who can barely sustain their living cannot afford to get married and establish a family. Since the religious values of both Muslims and Christians perceive premarital sexual relations as taboo and the chance to get married and establish family is constrained, sexual harassment might be seen as an “alternative” channel to let the frustration out.
It is Not a Justification
A fundamental misunderstanding must be avoided. The cause and actual acceptance of sexual harassment are two separate issues. Poor financial conditions and a prevailing conservative societal system might induce some men to give unpleasant attention to women, but identifying a likely cause is not a justification for such behavior, in any case.
The Future of HarassMap and Similar Projects
If we accept that the main cause of sexual harassment lies within the poor financial conditions and the conservative societal system, then initiatives such as HarassMap or Pink Taxis (taxis driven by women and accepting only women as passengers) might seem to be short-lived projects directed at the symptoms with only some effort to heal them. Yet they are still important because they point out that sexual harassment is a problem that must be addressed. In fact, the social acceptance of sexual harassment is the very factor that enables the assaults to grow rampantly.
Change can only come when the issue of sexual harassment is first acknowledged as a problem that needs to be solved. For that to happen, an open public discussion could be helpful. The way to overcome problems is to admit their existence and discuss them. This is exactly what HarassMap aims to achieve.
1. AWR article 35, week 47, 2008.