Taking Down Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment is a problem that affects women in all societies. Muslim societies are no exception. Where there is patriarchy, there will be sexual harassment. In both Muslim and non-Muslim societies, the “solution” to sexual harassment has always fallen on women. “Don’t dress in revealing clothes, don’t flirt, don’t stay out alone, etc.” Even at my alma mater, the rape and sexual harassment prevention posters are in the women’s bathrooms only, and the focus is on women’s behavior instead of men’s.

The Los Angeles Times recently did a profile of a group (pictured to the left) in Egypt that is taking a different approach to sexual harassment.
The volunteer group is sponsored by the Egyptian youth magazine Kelmetna. One of the great aspects of this group is the focus on men’s role in stopping sexual harassment. The slogan of the group’s campaign is “Respect yourself: Egypt still has real men.” I love this slogan for two reasons. The first is that it challenges one of the core values of traditional notions of masculinity: sexual power over women. Harassing women is not a sign of masculinity; it’s a sign of cowardice. It’s great that Muslims are beginning to recognize this.

Another reason I love this slogan is because it brings the responsibility for sexual harassment back on men. For too long, sexual harassment has been considered the responsibility of women. “Real men” take the responsibility in treating women with respect and sexual autonomy and they also take responsibility in stopping other men from disrespecting women’s sexuality. This is why the campaign not only focuses on getting men to stop sexually harassing women, but to also stop other men from doing it, too. This is especially important when a lot of sexual harassment in Egypt takes place in public.

The focus on making men responsible also challenges the view that women’s dress will prevent sexual harassment. The Los Angeles Times article cited a survey of Egyptian women which showed that 83% of Egyptian women reported being verbally and sexually harassed. Of these women, 70% were veiled. Nour Hussein, a volunteer with the group who wears hijab, was pushed to join the group after being sexually harassed. About her experience, Nour said “That was a month ago. I felt very insecure and this pushed me hard to join the campaign. I used to hear about harassment but thought that it only happened to non-veiled girls; I never thought it could happen to me.” Stories like Nour’s only further validate that message of the campaign: harassment is not the fault of women; it is the fault of the man. Recognizing that is the first step in taking down sexual harassment.

  • Zeynab

    Reading the article, I saw two things that disturbed me:1. “We also target girls,” said 16-year-old activist Nour Hussein. “We tell them that they should not provoke men with their clothes or conduct on the street. In the meantime, we don’t want to put the blame on girls’ clothes. We tell them wear whatever you wish but just try to be moderate.”That’s two opposing statements right there! “We don’t want to put the blame on girls clothes” does NOT compute against “they should not provoke men with their clothes.” The study that the LAT quoted even said that 70% of women harassed wore veils (the woman saying this wears a headscarf, for chrissake!), and yet we’re back to this “oh, don’t provoke them!” putting the onus of blame back on the women. 2. “In the past, men were more gallant and protective. They used to arrest the harasser and punish him by shaving his head, but things are different now,” said Ahmed Salah, the campaign’s moderator. “Our campaign is directed to a passive society and to each man who thinks that nobody would stop him if he harassed a woman on the street. We want to tell the harasser to respect himself and that he will find a man to stand up to him on the street.”And this quote bothers me because the whole idea of men as “gallant and protective [of women]” is still a patriarchal one that gets back to the idea of men needing to protect women. Why not stopping harassment b/c it’s the RIGHT THING TO DO versus it shows “what a man you are?” I mean, it’s a step in the right direction. And perhaps these two meant something else and the author misquoted them. But the paternalism in those quotes kind of icks me out.

  • Duniya

    Zeynab:I agree. The whole idea that a woman is somehow responsible for a man’s behaviour is so ingrained in so many societies that it will take a long time to eradicate it. Even here it has been a long time coming. There are instances here even when people blame the woman for being harassed or assaulted because of what she was wearing. But a program that is aiming to help women and not blame them, should be working extra hard to eradicate this way of thinking. And as far as the whole protection thing goes – You’re right about the “real man” concept. It is almost as if they are saying to be a real man you have to protect women. Not, hey men, women are people too and sexual harassment and assault are wrong! They have the right to not be harassed and assaulted. We as human beings have a duty to uphold human rights.

  • Forsoothsayer

    exactly, zeynab! believe you me, whatever this campaign is saying, and whatever the research said, ALMOST EVERYONE in egypt still thinks it’s about clothes, even the women. I’m writing a post about this campaign and the response now. it’s a sick country, sick. and when ramadan arrives! oh, the wealth of harassment then.

  • Zeynab

    Blanket statements! Is it necessary to call your own country sick? Ease up a little. But send us a link to your post, won’t you?

  • Forsoothsayer

    i just got back from italy, you see, where i felt much more like a PERSON than i ever had living here. it really is very awful. the human rights abuses alone. but the worst part is how horribly ignorant, racist, and sexist nearly everyone is. virtually the ONLY people who aren’t are the totally westernized ones. lends credence to western ideas, but unfortunately a fact of life for anyone with any notion of (say) equality.

  • Zeynab

    I understand that, as an Egyptian, you have a closer perspective than I might. But I have a really difficult time believing that the only people who believe in equality are westernized. What does that mean, exactly? Western-educated or non-religious?

  • Forsoothsayer

    educated in western institutions, and politically liberal. that’s almost it, really. i didn’t think so before i moved back but i was pretty stunned byt the volume of hatred i have heard from almost every corner.

  • Kawthar

    A few days ago, I was watching an Egyptian channel, and an ad that appeared to target harassment was aired. I was excited, thinking that the government was finally taking serious measures to combat the problem.

    My excitement was short-lived though: the ad was apparently part of a series urging Egyptians to not tarnish the image of Egypt in the eyes of tourists.

    Here’s one of the videos.

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