Shame and Sexual Harassment in Egypt
Mona Eltahawy

NEW YORK – When I was only 4 years-old, and still living in Cairo, a man exposed himself to me as I stood on a balcony at my family’s home, and gestured for me to come down.

At 15, I was groped as I was performing the rites of the Haj 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.

During my 20s, when I had returned to Cairo and wore the hijab, a way of dressing which again covers everything but the face and the hands, I was groped so many times that whenever I passed a group of men I’d place my bag between me and them. Headphones helped block out the disgusting things men -- and even boys barely in their teens -- hissed at me.

I learned to push and punch those whose hands thought my body was fair game, but I never found anything to soothe the burning violation. So imagine how much sharper that violation stung when I tried to complain to the police only to be shooed away -- or when it was their hands which groped me.

Once, a riot policeman fondled my breast while he was pushing back a group of us journalists at the trial of an opposition politician. I yelled at him, and I complained to his supervising officer, who moved him to the back row of riot police and told me “Nevermind.”

So it was no surprise to learn that 98 percent of foreign women visiting Egypt and 83 percent of native Egyptian women who were recently surveyed said that they, too, had been sexually harassed, and they have recounted a catalog of horrors similar to mine. What an awful time to be woman in Egypt.

When the Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights reported that 62 percent of Egyptian men admitted to harassing women, I could only shudder at what sexist bullies so many of my countrymen are.

Even worse, when I read that the majority of the more than 2,000 Egyptian men and women that ECWR surveyed blamed women for bringing on the harassment because of the way they dressed, I honestly thought my countrymen and women had lost their minds.

In Egypt today, up to 80 percent of women wear one form of veil or another -- be it a headscarf or a full-body veil that covers the face too -- so you would think it was obvious that sexual harassment had nothing to do with the way a woman dresses.

So what is it that drives such a stubborn wish to fault women?

The answer lies in perhaps the saddest of all the Centre’s findings. Unlike foreign women, most Egyptian women said women should keep their harassment to themselves because they were ashamed or feared it could ruin their reputation. That’s when I was taken back full circle to the time I was groped on the Haj.

Shame.

This shame is fueled by religious and political messages that bombard Egyptian public life, turning women into sexual objects and giving men free reign to their bodies.

In 2006, It was the well-publicized episode of the mufti of Australia comparing women who didn’t wear the hijab to uncovered meat left out for wild cats. He was educated at al-Azhar, the religious institution in Egypt that trains clerics from all over the Sunni Muslim world. He was suspended, but his reprehensible views are very much at work among many other clerics. Today, as two bloggers in Egypt reported recently, there are email and poster campaigns with a message that uses candy to tell women that if they cover they will be safe from harassment, as covered candy is safe from flies.

When did Egyptian women become candy and when did Egyptian men turn into flies?

There is no law criminalizing sexual harassment in Egypt, and police often refuse to report women’s complaints. And when it is the police themselves who are harassing women, then clearly women’s safety is far from a priority in Egypt.

The State itself taught Egyptians a most spectacular lesson in institutionalized patriarchy when security forces and government-hired thugs sexually assaulted demonstrators, especially women, during an anti-regime protest in 2005, giving a green light to harassers.

So there was little surprise that during a religious festival in 2006, a mob of men went on a rampage in downtown Cairo, sexually assaulting any woman they came across as police watched and did nothing.

It was only when bloggers broke the news that the media reported the assaults. Still, the Egyptian regime has never acknowledged it happened. At a demonstration against sexual harassment that I attended in Cairo a few days later, there were nearly more riot police than protestors.

My sister Nora was 20 at the time, and she, with several of her friends, joined the protest. She had never been to a demonstration before but was incensed when she heard the State was denying something that had happened to her many times. We swapped our sexual harassment stories like veterans comparing war wounds, and we unraveled a taboo which shelters the real criminals of sexual harassment and has kept us hiding in shame.

And that is why I began here with my own stories -- to free myself of the tentacles of that shame.

Mona Eltahawy is an award-winning New York-based journalist and commentator, and an international lecturer on Arab and Muslim issues. Copyright ©2008 Mona Eltahawy –  distributed by Agence Global. Released: 29 July 2008