Sexual harassment in Egypt after the revolution

Samer Soliman , Thursday 22 Mar 2012

The Egyptian revolution did not rid Egyptians of the chronic disease of sexual harassment, but it showed that it is not insurmountable

One of the characteristics of the Egyptian revolution, lived in many Egyptian squares, was the emergence of a new model of society based on solidarity, compassion and respect for others. We are told that large gatherings in Egypt can only lead to chaos, fighting and sexual harassment because we are barbarians and ignorant. But the models of Tahrir Square in Cairo, Al-Qaed Ibrahim in Alexandria, Al-Arbieen Square in Suez, and others across the country, were witness that more than five Egyptians can gather in one place without causing havoc.

Egyptians were very optimistic that the revolution would rid them of the shame of sexual harassment that had spread in Egypt like wildfire over the past decades. Hence, there was a special focus on the fact that despite crowding during the revolution and as bodies brushed against each other across Egypt there was a noticeable drop in sexual harassment. Of course, a handful of disgraceful incidents occurred, particularly to some foreign females, that were condemned by everyone, but this did not change the fact that most of the testimonials of women who participated in the revolution confirmed that sexual harassment sharply decreased during the days of the revolution and since.

The revolution destroyed the myth that sexual harassment is caused by the mixing of the sexes. Mixing alone does not result in sexual harassment. If it were so, then sexual harassment rates would skyrocket in countries where there is much mixing of the sexes, such as in Europe, Latin America and Turkey. But that has not happened.

The revolution also disproved the theory that sexual harassment is related to how women are dressed and how much of their bodies are exposed. The revolution included a large number of women wearing jeans and other forms of progressive clothing who were not sexually harassed. If sexual harassment were linked to the amount of flesh a woman shows, then rates of harassment would not have risen so shamefully in recent years in Egypt, since women were covering up more in comparison to the 1930s or even the beginning of the 1970s.

Theories linking sexual harassment with mixing of sexes or the emancipation of women are invalid, even if many still assert them. The sun rises in the East even if millions swear that it rises in the West, and these are beliefs that must be abandoned as soon as possible because they are no less shameful than the act of sexual harassment since they blame the victim. Since they also falsify perception and bury the real reasons for the disease and only suggest futile solutions that do little more than spread the disease in new forms, they are identical to assertions justifying the running over of pedestrians by speeding cars in arguing that people should stay at home to avoid this grisly fate.

The void left by eliminating the theory that the emancipation of women gives rise to sexual harassment was filled by conjecture that poverty, more spinsters and delaying the age of marriage are at the root of the shocking rise of sexual harassment in Egypt. This, of course, is a qualitative move away from assertions that emancipated women raise the rates of sexual harassment, since it is rooted in an honest attempt — I believe — to understand the disease and manage it. It also adopts a more compassionate outlook that neither blames the victim nor strips the perpetrator of his humanity, since it views the latter as a sick person and themselves a victim of difficult circumstance.

But the poverty theory is also problematic. Primarily because it points an accusing finger at poor and single people as the main perpetrators of sexual harassment. This is baseless and unjust. If sexual harassment was caused by poverty, how is it present in very wealthy societies in the North and our Arab region? If delaying the age of marriage is a root cause, then why do married people do it and the most active perpetrators are very young, perhaps no older than 15 years old? This theory will not result in a viable cure, since no matter how low we drop the legal age for marriage we will never allow girls and boys under the age of 15 to marry.

I am not an expert on sexual harassment and therefore cannot propose alternative theses to explain what triggered the rise of sexual harassment in Egypt. However, I do have some comments that could be useful, based on observations and listening to Egyptian and foreign female friends. The testimony of foreign females is especially important, because a foreign female in Egypt — be she European, American or African — is exposed to higher rates of sexual harassment than an Egyptian female.

One friend told me that she was sexually harassed in Egypt much more than in any other Arab country she had been to, namely Palestine and Sudan. Note that Palestinians are more subjugated than Egyptians and the Sudanese suffer higher rates of poverty than Egyptians. Comparison to other countries, especially Arab states, is essential to understanding the root of the disease and to learn from the experience of others in managing it. This is the first observation.

The second is that it is necessary to make a distinction between flirting with someone and sexually harassing them. Flirting, as defined by Egyptian society, is a man or woman trying to attract or seduce the opposite sex using known tools of the art of seduction, such as sweet talk, gifting flowers, humour and so on. The goal is to make the other party fall in love with them or admire them or become sexually aroused.

The goal of sexual harassment, on the other hand, is not attraction or arousal but instead to control another’s body through force and terror. It involves little sex and a lot of violence. It is also noticeable that flirting has declined in Egypt in recent decades, while sexual harassment has sky rocketed. If this is true, then we will reach one of two conclusions: either that sexual harassment has nothing to do with flirting, or that there is an inverse relationship between the two. If flirting decreases, sexual harassment increases and vice versa.

The third observation is that the victims of sexual harassment are not only women; children and boys are exposed to it either by their peers or those older than them. Men also are subjected to it, especially in prisons and detention centres. The testimonials of intellectuals, writers and politicians who were imprisoned confirm that sexual harassment is practiced by goons against prisoners and some prisoners against each other as a form of subjugation and humiliation.

Accordingly, the issue should not be referred to the National Council of Women or women’s groups because the disease goes beyond the oppression of women, even though most of the victims of sexual harassment are women. Women are subjected to an unfair share of sexual harassment, not because of their gender but because they are perceived as an easy target that can be preyed upon without serious consequence. Once again, I want to highlight that sexual harassment involves little sex and much violence, and I believe the disease is rooted more in violent tendencies rather than sexual repression.

In conclusion, we have not yet arrived at a satisfactory explanation for the rise of sexual harassment in Egypt, although we have achieved remarkable progress in understanding the phenomenon thanks to many female researchers who helped refute flawed theories in explaining sexual harassment that blame how women dress. Statistics show that the victims of sexual harassment who wear the hijab (head scarf) and niqab (face veil) are no less in number than more progressive dressers.

What is needed now is to transfer the issue of sexual harassment from the domain of the sex police to that of public security; from the interior ministry to the ministries of health and social affairs, as well as centres of social research and serious media. Also, to make it a priority for the presidency and the Constituent Assembly that will pen the constitution.

Constitutions are born of the moment, and therefore it is unreasonable that we should write Egypt’s new constitution in 2012 without mentioning the rights of Egyptian men and women to move freely in the public domain without their bodies being violated by the diseased and weak willed.

Seriously addressing the issue of sexual harassment in Egypt is key in forcing our people to look in the mirror and confront themselves about a chronic disease that the great revolution revealed to be something that can be brought under control and is curable. The revolution continues.

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