On Jan. 16, Warda was nearly raped. It happened in early afternoon, in the heart of central Cairo, in an elevator.
A man with short black hair entered, Warda recalled. “We didn’t really look at each other; I was reading some messages on my phone,” she said. The elevator, big enough for four people, stopped suddenly, and the lights went out. The electricity was cut, nothing unusual in some neighborhoods of Cairo. They called for the bawab – the caretaker – but no one answered.
“Then I felt the hand of the man in my pants. I asked him to stop, but he said I better shut up or he would take his knives out,” she said, fighting back tears. He opened his pants and pressed himself against her for what felt like hours, she said. Luckily, the lights came back on. “He stopped and let go of me. I just didn’t want to look into his face.”
As I’ve written about before, for women in the Middle East, pervasive, aggressive sexual harassment is a fact of life. My esteemed co-author, Sarah Jane Braasch-Joy, wrote about her own encounter with it during a legal internship in Morocco:
I was shocked from the moment the plane landed at the reaction I elicited. I had never felt so sexualized and objectified. It was a suffocating and overwhelming deluge of incessant, aggressive, unwanted male attention. Taxi drivers tried to kidnap me. Soldiers harassed me. Strange men tried to lure me into their shops, their homes, their beds. I was baffled at the rudeness of these men who felt absolutely no compunction in trying to touch and grab me.
Another quote from the Times article:
Heba Habib, a law student from Cairo, said she “couldn’t take it” anymore. “Every day, dirty comments, the grabbing when you ride on the bus.”
Once, she said, a cab driver started recounting his sexual fantasies. “I was so ashamed and tried to overcome it by laughing,” the 22-year-old said, flicking her long dark hair behind her left ear. “When I got out of the car and wanted to pay him, I saw that his pants were down and he had been masturbating.”
She threw his fare on the seat and left. “You feel every day less and less like a human being.”
The idea that women ought to be sexually available to any man who desires them is heavily entrenched in these societies. It’s the end result of a longstanding cultural and religious tradition that treats them as objects rather than people. (A piece of fruit doesn’t object to being eaten. Why should a woman object to being assaulted, groped or catcalled?) Even in Egypt, in the aftermath of a democratic revolution where women played a major leadership role, it’s too much to expect that this will change overnight.
I mention this because the atheist blogosphere has spent the last few days blowing up over a prominent male atheist who asserted that Western feminists have nothing to complain about, that the most they have to put up with is creepy advances and undesired attention, versus the vicious sexism that women suffer in the Islamic world. Well, I’ve got news for anyone who thinks that: These aren’t different problems; they’re different manifestations of the same problem.
These are points on a spectrum, to be sure. It’s perfectly clear that women in Morocco or Egypt, in general, are subjected to more and worse sexual harassment than women in America. But what I saw so often in the aftermath of that blowup is the attitude that a man is entitled to solicit a woman’s attention wherever, whenever, and in whatever manner he chooses, and if that makes her feel annoyed or upset or harassed or afraid for her safety, too bad, because his desire to hit on her trumps any desire she has not to be hit on. And that’s the same attitude that motivates street harassers in the Middle East and that underlies so many of the other injustices inflicted on women in that region.
The most common complaint I’ve heard from men in response to this is that they can’t be “mind-readers”, that they can never know in advance whether a woman would welcome their attention. Well, here’s a novel suggestion: If you want to know what women like or don’t like, ask them. In the aftermath of the elevator incident, many women explained in great detail just why that situation would have made them uncomfortable. And, in general, that pattern holds: if you want to know the best ways to approach women, go and ask some women! It won’t make you telepathic, it’s true, but I guarantee that what you learn will come in handy in social situations. I suspect that what some of these men really mean is not that they can’t imagine how a woman would feel, but that they don’t want to make the effort to learn.
I said that harassment of women in the Middle East and creepy, unwelcome advances on women in the West are manifestations of the same problem, the same sense of entitlement, and they have the same solution as well. Men need to stop taking the attitude that they should be able to do what they please as long as they don’t actually assault or rape anyone. If you make advances on a woman and she feels harassed, you are in the wrong, and you need to stop, take a step back, and evaluate what you can do differently. Where sexism and harassment have the sanction of religion, this consciousness-raising is going to be a long and difficult process, but skeptics and rationalists don’t have even that much excuse.