Sexual harassment in Egypt reaching "epidemic" proportions

Egypt has a reputation for being a place where women are frequently sexually harassed as they walk the streets - a problem that may be getting even worse

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An Egyptian policeman attempts to protect a journalist from a crowd of Egyptian men
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Ghaffar Hussain
On 5 September 2012 16:52

Egypt has a reputation for being a place where women are frequently sexually harassed as they walk the streets. A report published by the Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights in 2008, found that 83 percent of Egyptian women and 93 percent of foreign women had experienced sexual harassment.

Many of my female friends and associates have also relayed horror stories about their experiences in that country. A number of high profile international female journalists and correspondents were even sexually abused and beaten whilst reporting on the Egyptian uprising against Mubarak’s regime last year.  

However, according to a recent BBC report, sexual harassment in Egypt is now reaching ‘epidemic’ proportions. According to campaigners, many women are now suffering sexual harassment on an almost daily basis and there has been an increase in reported attacks in the past three months.

These attacks mostly take place on public transport, in crowded market places and on streets in broad daylight as women travel to and from work. The attacks, which are increasingly attracting younger assailants, can sometimes take the form of mob-style violent assaults involving many men surrounding a single female victim.

The authorities, it seems, are not taking this problem very seriously at all. In fact, in a somewhat ironic twist, earlier this year a female dominated protest against sexual harassment was attacked by a marauding mob of young men who went on to sexually abuse many of the female participants.

Despite efforts from campaigners, Egypt currently has no laws that protect women from this kind of harassment. Internal critics accuse the state of being obsessed with political security whilst neglecting social ills rampant in Egyptian society.

Bloggers are doing their best to raise awareness of the problem and a joint Egyptian/American website called Harassmap has been launched. This site seeks to attract SMS messages from victims in order to map hotspots so that outreach work in the areas worst affected can be carried out.

A consensus on the causes for this disturbing trend has yet to emerge. Some cite the rise of religiosity and associated patriarchal values in recent decades and the way in which they have changed attitudes towards women in the social sphere. There does seem to be a correlation between rising religiosity and sexual harassment but a causal link can’t be proven.

Others have pointed to the fact that most Egyptian men, due to a shortage of jobs and housing, cannot afford to get married until they are well into their thirties, if they are lucky, and sexual contact with females before marriage is strictly taboo. These dynamics combine to create sexually starved young men with lots of time on their hands to freely roam chaotic cities such as Cairo and Alexandria seeking kicks that don’t cost money.

A female Egyptian friend of mine blames it on the manner in which women are objectified in the Egyptian media and public marketing campaigns. But women are objectified in most countries to more or less the same extent. In fact, most Egyptian ads and music videos are tame compared to European or South American ones.

None of these explanations are sufficient in my view, since many other countries also have similar dynamics without shockingly high sexual harassment rates. Clearly, there must be a cultural element to this problem with roots that we don’t understand.

Another interesting aspect of this trend is the fact that appearance and conservative dress codes don’t seem to make a difference either. Most Egyptian women wear the hijab and are still harassed just as much, if not more, than those who don’t, whilst those who choose to wear the full burka are not spared either.

This finding does seem to mock the view, held by many devout believers, that a conservative dress sense for women keeps them safe, decreases their chances of becoming targets of unwanted male attention, and has a positive impact on the moral health of society. In fact, some would argue that a conservative dress sense has the opposite effect – it sends out the message that men are unable to control their urges and the onus to curtail the wild passions of menfolk is on women.

Egypt requires an immediate public messaging campaign backed by legal reform and competent policing in order to deal with this issue. However, considering the politically volatile nature of contemporary Egyptian politics, and precarious security situation in the Sinai, it is unlikely that the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government will get around to doing any this any time soon. 

Ghaffar Hussain is a counter terrorism expert and Contributing Editor to The Commentator

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