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Hands off
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 01 - 11 - 2007

Safe Streets for All, writes Hadeel Al-Shalchi, is the latest move against the plague of sexual harassment in Egypt
It's a sunny afternoon at the Ain Shams campus in Abbasiya. Dozens of young people stroll around or lean on parked cars, chatting. Omniya Hamdy and her friend are sitting head to head on a stone bench. Hamdy is close to tears: she has just had to fight off a young man verbally harassing her here on campus. When she turned to confront him, he reached out to touch her.
"When I tried to defend myself, he threatened to actually hit me," Hamdy explain s. "Not only was he making indecent comments to me, ready to touch me in an indecent way, but I was expected to take it and be quiet!" Hamdy says much swearing was exchanged and only after she made a scene did he eventually leave. She is profoundly sick of being harassed on campus and on the street.
"What bothers me the most is how he felt he had a right to violate me in this way, and that I had no right to say anything," she added, alluding to social attitudes that grants men the right to do whatever they feel like and view women as speechless angels. "Well, you know what -- we are humans too, and we have limits. I just can't handle it anymore." Hamdy started wearing hijab because she felt it would protect her from such indecent behaviour, but it didn't make a difference. "It doesn't matter what you're wearing. And it's not like they just say a word and let it go. The words get dirtier and the attitudes filthier by the day."
Such harassment has become the norm on the streets of Egypt and especially in Cairo. A thing that led NGOs, Women Rights campaigns, billboards reminding that, "it could be your wife, your mother or your sister," and of late, radio programmes exposed the problem on a national scale. Many girls on the Ain Shams campus shrug when asked what needs to be done to stop it, or what they do to prevent it. It's just 'adi (normal) now. According to a recent publication of the Egyptian Centre for Women's Research (ECWR), indeed, Hamdy is among some 20,000 women assaulted annually in Egypt.
A civil reaction to the Eid before last's mass harassment incident in downtown Cairo, this is the first phase of the ECWR's awareness campaign aiming to stop sexual harassment. Research has revealed that some 60 per cent of the female population have been subject to some form of harassment during childhood. Harassment is described as a growing trend relative to increasingly difficult life issues and young men eager to escape their social reality and vent aggression.
"What can we do?" wonders Fatma, 21, a Hebrew student. She wears a black abaya that covers all her body but she is still routinely abused on the street. Fatma says she once had to slap a man coming off the metro because he reached to feel her. "A girl should have the right to wear whatever she wants," says Marwa, 18. "No one has the right to judge a woman by what she's wearing; only God judges. But she should have the right to walk down the street without being abused."
For Mona, 21, another Hebrew student, "in the Western world if a guy even says something to a woman, just a word, she can take him to the police. Over here, women's rights are not safeguarded. They harass our psychology, our self- esteem, as well as our bodies. And they always put the responsibility on the girl. These men think we want to be cat-called or touched."
As for Riham Sheble, an independent researcher in sexuality, there are many reasons why harassment has become worse on the street. "It will be very naïve to say there is no sexual frustration bottled up within men and women, but men more," says Sheble. "But there's also a schizophrenic personality here. People are raised to be decent and conservative, but everything around them is provocative. And I don't mean just sexually provocative." Sheble argues that Egyptians live in "bubbling" times in which tension, economic tension, and anger mix to create a volatile concoction. "There's this fallacy that runs in the Egyptian male mind that a woman actually likes to be harassed," says Sheble. "They think it makes her feel desirable. It's part of being brought up in a patriarchal society where women are brought up to be docile and obedient and men are told to be sexual animals."
Hamdy admits she doesn't plan on telling the police or campus security about the incident with the young man. "What are they going to do? Nothing, of course," she says. "There's no security on campus or outside. Here [at the university] security only comes when the boys are fighting with each other and pocketknives are pulled out. You have to be bleeding for someone to care." Sheble says Hamdy's reaction is typical. "The normal scene would be you'd get looked up and down in the station for what you're wearing first," says Hamdy. Sheble says police then look at the woman's demeanor. If she looks coquettish, has a suggestive laugh or hand gestures, then she was obviously asking for it.
"[Religious leaders] preach against [harassment] in their sermons and they ask boys to behave but they put a lot of blame on women," says Sheble. "Some say women can be distracting and sexually provoke men. You're [effectively] making women abhor their bodies, you're generating a schizophrenic generation of women who live in these bodies they hate." Sheble emphasised the fact that clothing has nothing to do with being harassed. True, even though 18-year-old Ain Shams student Alaa wears niqab and covers her hands, she says she is often verbally harassed. "It's like I'm a box, and they want to know what's inside this box," she says. "I think it's because these boys are not raised correctly at home. They don't know how to treat women."
Al-Azhar scholar Souad Saleh agrees, adding that in the Egyptian society nowadays, the Internet raises the children and not their parents. "Movies and video clips showing raging sexual situations, the high cost of marriage, the depression of youth not reaching its full potential, and a lack of balanced religious values," said Saleh, "all contribute. The harassers and the women who get harassed are actually victims of this society, for men who harass women are a product of a society that has failed them economically, socially, and morally; hence sexual harassment, an expression of this failure."
Society places much responsibility on women to dress and behave a certain way in order not to distract men, she went on, forgetting men's Islamic duty to lower their gaze, treating women with the utmost respect and protecting them. The government does not punish harassers for their actions and this fuels the process.
But there are three articles in the present criminal law that could be applicable to sexual harassment -- though the term itself is not founded on a legal base. According to the latest ECWR publication. Insulting, incident behaviour and sexual assault. Lawyer Edward El-Dahabi further explains that if sexual assault ( hatk al-'ard ) is practised with force or threat, regardless the victim's age, the punishment ranges between three-seven years in jail; could increase to 15 years or more if the assaulter was the victim's kin, guardian or has authority over them, such as being their boss. El-Dahabi added that though sexual assault is limited to any physical contact, there are other incriminating articles in law -- such as insulting and cursing, offending a woman verbally as well as any indecent attitude or action -- that are penalised by imprisonment or fining.
So technically punishment is an option. "I've gone to report harassment before, and the first thing I was told was, 'no man would take advantage of a woman, unless she allows him to'," says Sheble, who wears hijab. Sheble says it is frustrating and demeaning to report harassment. The police ask for very detailed information about the incident -- like the identity of the man who did it -- even if it's a passerby. Rape, says Sheble, is a whole other issue -- and especially if it's by a boyfriend or by a man who the family doesn't know about. So much for the law.
"NGOs have workshops and give out pamphlets to teach women about these things. But it needs to be done on a wider scale and more systematically," says Sheble. It needs to be done to incorporate different people and women in the community. It needs to be talked about in every village. It should be drummed into people's heads that this is wrong. "We need to include a component of sexual education in schools," she notes. "We need to teach women -- and men -- to differentiate between a good touch and a bad touch, what it means to be called a name while you're walking in the street, or for your body to be touched or be pointed at, or for someone to mention parts of your body."
Forms of sexual harassment:
- Unwelcome physical contact.
- Derogatory gender-based comments or humour.
- Sexually suggestive objects or explicit pictures at the work place.
- Persistent requests for a date.
- Unwelcome sexual propositions.
- An intimidating, hostile or offensive environment that makes it hard for you to work or study.
- Preferential treatment or promise of preferential treatment, such as a good grade, raise, promotion or vacation, if you submit to unwanted sexual conduct.
- Rape.
Source: Sexual Harassment , The Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action, The American University in Cairo publications.
The do's and don'ts of sexual harassment:
Do
- Admit that a problem exists.
- Tell the offender specifically what you find offensive.
- Tell the offender that his or her behaviour is bothering you.
- Say specifically what you want or don't want to happen, such as "please call me by my name not Honey," or "please don't tell that kind of joke in front of me."
Don't
- Blame yourself for someone else's behaviour, unless it truly is inoffensive.
- Choose to ignore the behaviour, unless it is truly inoffensive.
- Try to handle any severe or recurring harassment problem by yourself -- get help.
Source: www.ecwronline.org/arabic/rep/2005/GARL.htm
According to ECWR publication:
- According to a research that was conducted on a sample of 1,082 Egyptian women of various age groups:
23.5 per cent of girls under 18 are harassed daily or more.
38.5 per cent of girls under 18 faced obscene gesture or words.
32.7 per cent of women age 18 to 24 are harassed regularly.
37.76 per cent of sexual harassment took place in public places.
38.9 per cent of sexual harassment happened on the street.
31.6 per cent responded verbally to the harasser.
Two per cent informed authorities.
- The effect of sexual harassment on women include:
Psychological : anger, anxiety, fear, low self- esteem, depression, guilt, isolation, embarrassment.
Physical : headaches, sexual problems, losing focus, feeling of uncleanness and impurity and exhaustion.
Others : negative attitude towards other people especially men, reluctance to enter the workforce out of fear of being exposed to harassment, hence decrease job satisfaction, self blaming and doubting, a significant obstacle both to women's well being and their participation in public life.


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