More about Sexual Harassment in Egypt

It is no secret that sexual harassment is a very dangerous phenomenon in Egypt streets. What is striking is that it is getting worse, not better. I have been suffering from street sexual harassment for years, and wrote 2 years ago that I no longer had any tolerance for it. I described how I would attack men in cars with rocks if they had stopped to harass me.

Earlier last year, the day it was announced that Mubarak had stepped down, Tahrir Square was so crowded with people celebrating, and in the middle of the crowd, my friend was harassed. Basma, the prominent actress and political activist, also mentioned that she was harassed that day also, calling it the first time for her in Tahrir Square.

During the first Mohamed Mahmoud Street clashes, I was harassed three times, and only once was I able to react.
Last January, celebrating the Jan25 first anniversary, Basma was harassed again! She talked about that second incident in a recent TV interview.  In fact, she was invited for that TV interview because when she and her husband former MP Amr Hamzawy joined a protest in favour of freedom of speech, she was harassed yet again, making this the third time.

Amr Hamzawy’s tweet, and a response.

Amr Hamzawy tweeted about the incident and expressed his frustration with the harassment, only to face worse reactions, blaming him for being unreasonable about it and attacking him for not being a man enough, because he tweeted about it.

When I shared Hamzawy’s tweets on my Facebook account, some of the commented actually questioned Hamzawy’s manhood. Karim Abdel-Nabi, a friend who allowed me to quote his comment, said:

“I respect that Hamzawy supported his wife and didn’t deal with the situation as if it was a scandal to hide, and what should be important for us now instead of blaming Basma and Hamzawy – because they are victims here – is to focus on the offender himself (the harasser). We have to demand solutions to prevent this crime from happening again rather than just waiting for next Eid to cry!”

Hamzawy himself tried to pass a law against harassment when he was an MP but faced resistance from Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, and Al-Nour Party, run by Salafists; as he explains:

“I tried during the period of the parliament to push for proposing tougher sanctions to ensure law amendments to some articles in the penal code, but the majority from both of FJP and Al-Nour parties overturned it and emptied its content.”

Hamzawy continues, knowing very well his wife’s experience is just the tip of an iceberg:

“It exceeds personal bitterness to grieve what Egyptian women have to face daily and around the clock from the systematic violation of their dignity, and the male enforced twist of the catastrophe by a very bad vindicatory speech.”

The speech he refers to is the general societal acceptance of blaming the woman if she is harassed; it must have been her clothes, her improperly-hidden sexual appeal, or her being a woman walking down the streets when men can’t find a wife to fulfil his needs (as if it’s only single men who harass women).  That last argument was the base of Ahmed Samir’s article in Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper, proposing a radical (and bullshit) solution, suggesting that sexual harassment could be addressed by making sex more available.

A few days ago, I was in the faculty hospital for my studies. I passed by a car in which the driver was generous enough to give me his flattering opinion. I yelled at him, so he started to stutter and apologize, then the security personnel approached me to leave him.

A woman passing by saw what happened so she yelled at the harasser; when that happened, one of the security people asked the woman to mind her own business.

“You think this isn’t my business?” she responded “Today he harassed her; tomorrow he’ll harass 10 others!”

What I liked about that woman isn’t only that she approached me and wanted me to be sure I wasn’t alone; it is her logic that I respect, even if the security didn’t appreciate what she said – although they didn’t support the harasser at all.
We already struggle to get authorities to take this matter seriously, and we don’t need women to neglect it as if it will solve itself.

According to Hamzawy, the two main ways that men justify the phenomenon of harassment are that either women should just stay at home except if they are out with a man (that being a husband, a father or a son), or that it’s the women’s outfit, and that women should embrace chastity in what they wear.

Hamzawy responds:

“It is as if the working, studying, supporting women, the artist, the intellect, or any woman’s personal freedom – half the society’s freedom – is a marginal matter, or a matter that requires the man to be transformed into a monster who is always ready to defend the woman (his flesh in the patriarch dictionary) to be able to go out with her!”

And he continues:

“All these justifications for the crime of harassment and insulting women are just so sad, they only make her a second class citizen.

And shame on all those who work in media and spread such speech through the different TV channels, and hide behind a fake religious curtain to inject the society with their poison.”

Finally, he concludes:

“Without severe legal punishment and strict security dealing with those criminals and all who spread the rotten patriarchal justifications, we will not get rid of the catastrophe of humiliating women… all women .. in Egypt!”

As for hope? I guess there is a small one, with men like Hamzawy, and others who are against sexual harassment.  Even here, this still seems somewhat weird to me; they are against harassment but they expect men to react alone, to transform into Hulks to protect women, which is abnormal, not to mention so demeaning to women.

I still appreciate their refusal to accept the crime of harassment, but I really resent how they look at the whole situation from the position of an all-man world where women have no say, no power, and no actual right to defend themselves and demand being defended by official security.

Not only do I not care what society thinks or appreciates, I know next time someone tries anything I’ll make an example out of him, so sit tight, ‘cause I think I’ll have more to tell you!

  • Chris

    Wow. Amr Hamzawy sounds like an amazing man! I wish you, women like this assertive woman in the streets, Basma and men like Amr all the best in your struggle!

  • nasia

    Kudos to you. I have heard about similar stories of women being harrassed in buses in India, by men who think its just normal and their “duty” to harrass women. most of us, even me, just turn a blind eye to it. It takes enormous guts to react. God bless and protect you!

  • John B.

    I just randomly stumbled across your inspiring post, which is excellent, btw, and had to comment. REAL MEN DON’T HARRASS WOMEN! ‘Men’ who behave like this are cowardly bullies, as you so vividly — and bravely! — proved when you stood up to that loser. Bravo!

    There are also a lot of sexist/ misogynistic men in the USA (where I am), but fortunately they are usually more constrained. Women in America had to band together to force society to treat them more respectfully — an ongoing process that ebbs and flows, but over time leads to great progress. I hope that Egyptians will be allowed similar progress towards universal human rights — and that my own country won’t interfere, as it historically has done all over the world, for exploitative and selfish advantage.

    Keep up the good fight, and know that you are not alone in your struggle for dignity, respect and justice. I have faith that you and the many other good people of Egypt will prevail!

  • GarlicClove

    I remember reading about this issue in a comic series called Rise which was republished from an Egyptian magazine into an anthology in English. It documented the events leading up to Mubarak’s fall. The mens’ in the graphic novel also argued that the women deserved to be harassed because of dress, but women who wore the hijab and completely covered were harassed and assaulted as well.

    Unfortunately, the culture of blaming harassment victims extends world-wide. Here in the US, I have spoke to men who believe that it is no wonder that men of my generation do not respect women, just look at the way they dress. If a woman dresses “like a tramp” then she deserves what she gets.

    I respect any woman who stands up for herself, especially in a place where the stakes are so high. I hope you have good aim with those rocks!

  • Ellen

    Point that is worriesome with the argument ” If a woman dresses “like a tramp” then she deserves what she gets.” I find the view some people have that obviously sexually active people or prostitutes or any other person who are deemed sexual deserves assault or harrasment very problematic. Societies tendency to allow for or some times encourage the legitimization of abuse, humiliation and dehumanization of “tramps” or prostitutes is really troubling me. “Tramps” are humans and citizens too and deserves the same respect. Nobody likes harassment, not even highly sexually active women and nobody is ever “asking for” humiliation.

  • Chris

    Hi Ellen,

    I would like to go on and add a couple of things to what you said on people’s dress and private life. A “s. active” person, the way I understand it, is a person that actualizes their sexuality, their fantasies. This could be someone who is married, someone who is married and in an “open relationship”, or someone who is not married at all and “on the hunt” for partners (where the criterion will be to find someone they are attracted to, who will help them fulfill fantasies). None of these attributes – especially the key criterion for the s. active person of being attracted and getting one’s fantasies fulfilled – need be the case for a (male or female) prostitute. This is where I find the term s. worker (although in part troublesome, as s. work distinguishes itself from other work in the reality of this job for many cases) quite useful – then, it is clear it is a job and contact is desired with people who want to engage in an economic transaction, nothing else. For signalling one is up for engaging in such economic transaction, a certain “uniform” of the trade is worn.

  • Chris

    Now, you may be surprised but I would not confound being s. active with prostitution in the first place. I would not confound what one feels comfortable and good in wearing with any degree of s. activity in the second place. There are women who like to dress “appealing”, in a revealing way, or in a fashionable way, to them, yet are not necessarily s. active because their dress is not about attracting men, but to fulfil an image of what they want to look like for the evening or day, and feel good about it. Then there could be very s. active people, who have no intention of projecting “activeness” on the outside by their dress. And then there’s prostitutes, who like many people on the hunt for income abide by dresscodes of the trade, in that case advertise their being available under the condition of agreeing on service and price.

  • Chris

    Bottom line: The person who actualizes themselves and their personality with clothes others find revealing very likely does not want to be contacted just by the presumption of their clothes, at least in a respectful manner where they can clarify whether they want contact with that person or not. The s. active person will know how to take control and establish contact with people they are interested in, if by personal signals sent out to “love interests”. And of course the prostitute wants contact, but all under the condition the ones contacting her are principally interested in an economic transaction, else her time on the job is wasted. No man, however self-absorbed in their ego, can be serious to think any of the “provocatively” dressed above have interest in disrespectful contacting, with words, or worse, with touch. It is time that feminists and people interested in gender issues and gender equity start calling for men’s responsibility in their actions, and start calling out assumptions and presumptions of what people (especially women) want to tell by their dress. The way I see it, not many people who hold strong opinions on what a certain (revealing) dress says have asked the ones wearing it what they want to say, rather than to assume or presume what it “surely is they want to signal”.

    Sorry for putting certain “s” words in an abbreviation. I seem to have used them excessively in my posts so spam filters would not let me post otherwise.

  • anki wikman

    Bravo indeed! I am fortunate enough to experience very little of this in my culture, but the attitude is still very prevalent. I do think it’s important that men react too & I came across a video blog a few months back where a man argued for it very well. A man reacting does not exclude a woman reacting – it is just sometimes more powerful if the correcting comment comes from someone within one own’s group/gender rather than the opposing one. This I think is quite evident by the other men trying to suggest that Hamzawy was not a ‘real man’ – his criticism was so threatening (& had the power to force them to question themselves) that they had to immediately respond by ejecting him as one of their own. It’s a common psychological reaction (& quite depressing one too), but the more men raise their voices, the harder it becomes for other men to ignore it so welcome every ‘brother’ you have & don’t deprive them from feeling a little bit like the ‘hulk’ as there is one formidable ‘hulk’ in you too. Kudos to all of you! I hope your inner flames remain fueled and strong. :-)


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