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The land of few men

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Sara Abou Bakr

Sara Abou Bakr

This is what I have dubbed Egypt years ago, to the chagrin of some of my guy friends and agreement of others.

Egypt-mostly- is not a very healthy society with regards to interaction between women and men.

A clear example is simply walking down the street; cat-calls, sexual insinuation and at times groping are the norm for any woman. At times, expensive cars would stop if the driver and passengers take interest in any random woman. It does not matter that she is not soliciting, it is enough that she is walking, which, in turn, makes her an acceptable target.

Learning the hard way that few men would help them if they were harassed, young ladies have derived ways to protect themselves. The “wooden face” has become quite common, whereby a woman’s face becomes an expressionless mould, promoting a “do not approach” sign. You see, on the street, a relaxed woman, or worse, a smiling woman is equal to a “come hither” on Egyptian streets.  I remember a young male reporter, when he first arrived to Egypt, telling me: “I cannot smile to a woman on the street. They think I am harassing them!”

Other women carry pepper-sprays, needles and other sharp objects to protect themselves; in particular, those unfortunate enough to use public transportation. Extremely crowded, where people’s bodies almost mesh into one, it is a field day for any harasser. It is quite regular to find a woman screaming on a bus as a hand steals under her clothes for a quick grope.

In the past, a harasser would be beaten on the spot by passersby as soon as they hear a woman’s screams.  Nowadays, most men would look the other way, or worse, try to convince the aggrieved woman not to file a complaint because the harasser may get jail time. Others blame the woman; the way she dresses, talks and stands up for herself. It is now quite common to find women helping each other out, instead, adhering to the power in numbers mantra. And in case you have not noticed, police barely exists in Egypt and police men are well-known for harassing women for fun.

I have met men who ridicule sexual harassment, accusing women of over dramatising what happens to them. Some even believe that it is mostly “harmless flirting”. This type of man is the main reason why many women would avoid talking about what happens to them.

Few men understand that walking on the street for many Egyptian women has become a tension-filled process. A woman assesses the street, eyes the different men lurking around, measuring up who may be a threat and whether they may be a verbal or a physical one. She holds her bag close, keys in the other hand and walks awaiting harassment and how she will respond. This happens on a daily basis and in every neighbourhood. If she only gets leered at, she considers herself lucky. The leering itself is revolting; men undressing you with their eyes. All women, young, old, veiled or unveiled suffer from sexual harassment.

Sexual harassment is only the clear tip of the iceberg of the twisted male-female interaction in Egypt.

Many men are raised to become entitled beings expected to be waited upon for the simple reason of being male. While many women are raised to believe their worth is measured by marriage. Few parents raise their children as human beings, rather, gender-based upbringing is quite common in our society. Boys get away with staying out late, partying, relationships and all adolescent-related activities, while girls are forced to stay home, do chores and focus on their studying, for “a girl has a reputation” to uphold, or else how will she get married? This antiquated way of thinking is quite common in Egypt. Even worse, in many households, girls are expected to take care of their spoiled brothers. And before the ethics brigade accuse me of promoting promiscuity among young women in Egypt, I am calling for the exact opposite; for parents to raise their boys as they do their girls. To force them to do their chores, be responsible, find summer jobs and focus on their studies, for this is how you raise a man and not a spoiled prince, who, after growing up to face the real world, is unprepared. He whines about his job, marriage and children. He discovers at a very old age that life is hard.

The “spoiled prince syndrome” is the reason why many well-educated young women in Egypt are refusing to marry. In a society that is marriage-oriented like Egypt, the decision to remain unmarried is a novelty. Talking to several of those well-accomplished ladies, one said: “When I choose to marry, it has to be because he adds something to my life. I am financially independent [and] from a good family. I travel a lot and my work is fulfilling. I do not have to marry, which is a privilege in this country. So when I do it, I want him to add something to my life that has nothing to do with money and children, but with the fact that he is important to me.”

This complex way of thinking is a result of good education and financial independence; the two factors that change the life of any woman, making her more demanding of her partner. As an older, married guy friend once told me, “it is quite hard to find this in our society; a man who would not stifle her while remaining unfazed by her independence. It requires a different man.”

This sums it up to an extent; in Egyptian society, well-educated women seem to have moved further up the progression path, becoming more demanding and more independent, while many men have stayed put, content with their guaranteed place in society. A mental wedge has been created between them and many young women are refusing to settle.

Tales of spoiled husbands who refuse to lift a finger with house chores, ignore parenting their children and even, at times, refusing to financially participate in household expenses have put off many women. Divorce horrors are quite common and the Family Court is always filled to the brim; fights over alimony and child support are the norm among all social classes in Egypt.  Other tales of marital abuse, both psychologically and physically, by husbands are widespread. Corporal punishment is viewed by self-proclaimed sheiks as acceptable. And if this is not enough, some parents would convince-and at times force- their daughter to take back her abusive husband for fear of divorce, financial ruin or scandal.

In a society that likes to dub itself religious, the treatment of women is completely unreligious. The way boys are raised is as far from religious as humanly possible.  Currently, few families are raising men, but rather overgrown boys. Religion preaches respect between genders. In Egypt, women are severely disrespected, for how can a religious society treat its women in such a manner?

In between the convoluted societal mess lies a sliver of a few good men.

A friend was very angry one day: “I was walking on the street and this girl was walking in front of me. She felt my footsteps, looked back and fled to the other side of the street. I wanted to tell her, ‘I will not touch you. I am decent.’” He felt ashamed for being thought of as a sexual predator and angry at a society that makes its women afraid to walk freely.

Another regaled a story of a girl who was faced with a mob of young men on one side of the street, and chose to cross over to the other side, where street dogs reside preferring “to risk being bitten than passing by the men,”  he explained bitterly.

These men who have become fed up with the reputation of Egyptian men as sexual harassers paraded on travel websites and embassies are the main reason to feel hope for the male sector in Egypt. Those who volunteer with anti-sexual harassment squads as well as those who treat women as human beings, rather than females, are the core for a decent society. Men who are raised by parents to become responsible and be an addition to society are the nucleus for a better life. Men who are proud of their daughters and push them to succeed regardless of twisted societal norms.

The interaction between men and women in Egypt has to progress, otherwise, we will remain glued to this barbaric phase until God knows when.

It all starts with women, how they are treated and how they raise their children. Mothers in Egypt set the tone for the household in most cases. If they consciously decide to raise their boys and girls equally, ignoring the useless gender-based societal roles, then it is the correct start. Parents need to teach boys at a very young age to treat their female colleagues and relatives as human beings; to talk to her mind and to treat her with respect rather than viewing her as “a piece of meat” to be harassed when possible.

Egypt has experienced a revolution on 25 January 2011 that has changed it political scene ever since. Few note the societal effect of this revolution. A simple example that I have been privy to was during the first Mohamed Mahmoud street battles in 2011. After being bombarded with tear gas by the police, we were resting in Al-Flaky Street. A couple of young veiled girls were spraying their friends with yeast to fight the effects of gas. A guy, from the unfortunately poorer side of Cairo and could barley breathe was very impressed with the girls: “There are girls on the front lines with us and they not afraid of anything, I swear.” He kept regaling their tales of courage. I noted the way he acted with the two girls handling the yeast sprays: smiling, impressed, but respectful. At this moment, I glimpsed what the young generation in Egypt is capable of: human interaction between genders.

Egypt has a lot to offer and many of the younger generation are keen for it to take its place among the more modern countries. Behavioural specialists on TV channels need to openly discus gender interaction, children upbringing and painful experiences of girls harassed and abused. Laws, as usual, exist to protect women but are rarely implemented. It is the responsibility of the government to make sure that they are upheld. Gender interaction among young girls and boys is needed so they do not become strange beings to one another.

Unless we start to do this, Egypt will remain the land of few men.

About the author

Sara Abou Bakr

Politics editor at Daily News Egypt Twitter: @sara_ab5


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