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What women need
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 24 - 12 - 2009

A recent Cairo conference suggests that the sexual harassment of women is becoming a pan-Arab phenomenon, reports Enjy El-Naggar
Three months ago on the first day of Eid Al-Fitr, the Egyptian police reported over 1,000 cases of sexual harassment in Cairo and Giza. However, last month on the first day of Eid Al-Adha, the number had plummeted to 160 reported cases. It seems that the sharp decline was due to "natural causes", since the first day of Eid Al-Adha saw heavy rains that kept most people at home.
Over the past few years, sexual harassment in Egypt has evolved into a seasonal activity occurring during the holidays, and this has caused NGOs and human-rights organisations to sound the alarm.
In response to increasing calls for combating the phenomenon, the Egyptian Centre for Women's Rights (ECWR), in collaboration with the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA), organised a regional conference, "Sexual Harassment as Social Violence and its Effect on Women in the Middle East and North Africa Region", which debated different forms of violence against women at the top of which was sexual harassment.
The conference, which hosted women leaders from 16 Arab counties in addition to international experts, aimed at understanding sexual violence as a form of social violence and how it impedes women's participation in the public space. Participants exchanged experiences from their respective countries on ways of addressing and combating sexual violence and consolidating efforts, improving coordination and fostering collaboration between countries in the region.
"We were thinking about the idea of the conference one year ago after the Safer Streets for All campaign, which was launched in 2007," Nehad Abul-Qomsan, director of ECWR, told Al-Ahram Weekly. "The conference is not only about tackling sexual harassment, it also aims to discuss all kinds of violence against women," she added.
Recent studies conducted by women's rights organisations have shown that the phenomenon is on the rise. In 2008, a study by the Centre for Public Mobilisation and Statistics (CAPMAS) showed that 47 per cent of Egyptian women between 15 and 49 had been victims of domestic violence, and seven per cent reported rape by their husbands.
In the Al-Nadim Centre's most recent 2009 study, 79 per cent (991 of 1,262 women) of those surveyed reported domestic violence. In addition, an alarming 55 per cent of women reported experiencing some form of domestic abuse or violence from their husbands, 20 per cent from their fathers and 12 per cent from their brothers.
"Sexual harassment is linked to other forms of discrimination and violence against women in complex ways," said Sherifa Zuhur, director of the US-based Institute of Middle Eastern, Islamic and Strategic Studies. "It is not a banal or trivial matter, and we are here because it has been an epidemic in Egypt for many years," she said during the first session of the conference.
However, such harassment turned out not to be a uniquely Egyptian preserve. Sixteen Arab participants at the two-day conference presented papers about violence against women in their countries. In Qatar, for example, a study conducted in 2006 stated that some 509 of 2,787 Qatari women had experienced violent behaviour and ill- treatment by men in the family (husbands, brothers or fathers). These facts were supported by another study on domestic violence conducted in 2007.
The situation in another Gulf country, Oman, was no better. According to a study by Omani journalist Maysa El-Hanie, a reporter at the newspaper Fetoon, 11 per cent of women face harassment in different ways in work, whether verbal, physical, or in remarks tarnishing their reputation.
At least 56 per cent of Omani women working in offices experienced verbal harassment. Meanwhile, the reputations of female workers in shops and in the military and medical sectors were more likely to be tarnished, making such women feel alienated from society. The study also showed that those who work in menial jobs are the most vulnerable to the worst forms of physical harassment.
In Saudi Arabia, where all women are veiled, the phenomenon takes a different shape. The Saudi Human Rights Association has received reports of some 1,164 cases of domestic violence, according to Al-Jawhara Mohamed Al-Wabli, chair of the King Abdel-Aziz Female Charity Association.
Al-Wabli reported different kinds of violence, mainly domestic, against women, including physical, psychological, social and sexual violence. "Talking about sexual harassment remains a taboo topic in Saudi Arabia, and therefore we don't have exact statistics about this problem as most incidents are unreported," Al-Wabli said.
Arab women's reluctance to report sexual harassment is part and parcel of the mushrooming phenomenon. In Egypt, for example, Noha Roshdi, a girl who was sexually harassed in 2008 and took her harasser to court, broke an established habit of silence in such cases. The harasser was sentenced to three years in prison and fined LE5,000 in the unprecedented case.
Yet, women in other Arab countries have yet to break the mould. "Women in Oman think a million times before they report sexual harassment to the police, whether they are married or not," said Mariam Abdallah El-Nahwai, an Omani researcher in women's and children's affairs at the Omani Association of Writers and Authors. "Their reluctance to report harassment stems from a fear of the social stigma," she said.
In Yemen, the problem is even more complicated since women are reluctant to report harassment cases and the law does not provide protection for them against intimidation. "The absence of clear-cut legislation that provides punishment for sexual harassment, combined with a lack of interest by police in reports by women about any kind of harassment, aggravates the situation," said Yemeni lawyer Ishraq Fadl Al-Moqtori.
Even in countries where there is legislation that protects women against harassment, punishment for sexual harassment is still asymmetrical. "Even though the law provides severe punishments for those who commit rape or threaten women's lives, there are still many differences in the levels of punishment," said Kaltham Al-Ghanim, a professor of sociology at the University of Qatar. "These differences indicate discrimination against women," she added.
Despite the fact that many countries in the Arab world have taken legal steps towards combating sexual harassment, gaps in legislation and enforcement mechanisms still exist that hinder the abolition of all forms of violence against women and aggravate reticence in the surrounding culture. According to the participants at the conference, in many Arab countries there is an urgent need for laws that prohibit violence or harassment against women.
In addition, women subject to sexual harassment often receive unfair trials because judges issue rulings according to their convictions rather than according to the law. "The law in almost all Arab countries lacks accurate legal texts condemning harassment crimes," said Mary Rose Zalzal, a Lebanese human-rights activist. Zalzal added that while some states have endorsed texts giving women legal protection against sexual harassment, the perpetrators of these crimes often remain unpunished because of difficulties in prosecuting such cases.
Zuhur concurs, saying that "the law does not recognise women's individual rights, but treats sexual harassment or assaults on women as a violation of their tribes' or their male relatives' rights [under customary law, or urf ], or as a violation of the public interest and Islamic order [under Sharia law], or, most recently, of a husband's rights over his wife's body," she said. When it comes to sexual harassment in the streets, this is often treated as a minor infraction of public order and not a serious offence.
Zuhur stressed that governments should encourage women to register complaints and should protect them through legislation as well as through consistently enforced punishments. Educational and media efforts should also be made, she said. "Judges, police, legislators, government authorities, parents, teachers, workers, employers, ordinary citizen observers, social leaders, men and women are not equally convinced that harassment or any other forms of violence against women are ongoing, wrong, and can have serious impacts," she added.
Some of the papers presented at the conference showed the negative impacts of sexual harassment in the work place on women and on the society as a whole. Sexual harassment in private or in the work place can result in a lack of focus, deteriorating professional performance, a decline in productivity, or even severe psychological crisis, which can lead to the use of mood-altering drugs and even resignation.
"Harassment in the work place needs to be criminalised in order to deter those who attempt to abuse women at work," said Faeza Basha, ex- director of the Libyan Centre for Human Rights.
Participants at the conference also criticised the media for not properly addressing the issue of sexual harassment and violence against women. Even in a country like Lebanon, which enjoys a high margin of media freedom, the handling and coverage of issues of violence against women was unacceptable, according to Magui Oun, a Lebanese media specialist and human- rights activist. "What the media cares about is scandals or scoops rather than treatment, follow- up or evaluation," she said.
However, Abul-Qomsan begged to differ as far as the Egyptian media was concerned. "The media was one of the vital tools that helped us fight this social cancer," she said. "A newspaper once published a feature about sexual harassment, and then I was surprised by a call from an Egyptian judge telling me that a group of judges had held a meeting to discuss how they could write a draft law to combat harassment," she added. "As a matter of fact, Egypt was the first Arab country to discuss this sensitive subject in the media," she added.
Abul-Qomsan also stressed that Egypt was the first country in the Arab world to launch media campaigns against sexual harassment. "It is thanks to the Egyptian media," she said, "which helped us a lot in raising awareness about how to fight harassment."
Asked about the outcomes of the first-of-its- kind conference, Abul-Qomsan said that it was "an attempt to establish legal guidelines to combat sexual harassment in the Arab region by carrying out studies of the punishments that should be imposed on harassers." Reports on the status of women in the Arab region would also be published, she said.
A STUDY by Abul-Qomsan and the Arab Consultant Office found that many Arab countries suffer from the problem of sexual harassment of women.
Twenty-seven per cent of Algerian female university students confirmed that they had experienced sexual harassment from their professors, while 44.6 per cent complained of verbal abuse, and 13.8 per cent said that they had been physically harassed.
In Qatar, 21.1 per cent of girls said they had been physically harassed, and 30 per cent of working women had been sexually harassed in the work place.
In Saudi Arabia, 22.7 per cent of female children had been subject to harassment. In Yemen, 90 per cent of women complained of harassment at work and in public places.
Another study conducted by the ECWR revealed that 83 per cent of women in Egypt said that they had been sexually harassed in one way or another at some point in their lives.
Abul-Qomsan's tips on how to defend yourself from sexual harassment in public places:
- Use tools in self-defence, including pins or something sharp like a pen, key or credit card.
- Spray the attacker with irritating but harmless substances, including pepper spray or perfumes.
- Push the harasser away using a bag or heavy book.
- Strike in vulnerable areas like the throat, eyes or ribs.
Forms of sexual harassment and how to deal with it:
Sexual harassment falls into three broad categories:
VERBAL: - Comments about appearance, body or clothes.
- Indecent remarks.
- Questions or comments about your sex life.
- Requests for sexual favours.
- Sexual demands made by someone of the opposite sex, or even your own sex.
- Promises or threats concerning employment conditions in return for sexual favours.
NON-VERBAL: - Looking or staring at a person's body.
- Display of sexually explicit material such as calendars, pin-ups or magazines.
PHYSICAL: - Physical touching, pinching, hugging, caressing, or kissing.
- Sexual assault.
- Rape.
Then following are ways of dealing with cases of suspected sexual harassment:
- Speak clearly and slowly, maintaining direct eye contact.
- Describe the behaviour, its effects on you, and saying that you want it to stop.
- Ignore any attempts to trivialise or dismiss what you have to say.
- Don't smile or apologise. This will undermine your complaint.
- When you have finished what you want to say, walk away. The less you say, the more powerful you will be.
www.safeworkers.co.uk/sexualharassmentwork.html


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