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What are the social and cultural dimensions behind the phenomenon of harassment? (2)

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Farid Zahran

Farid Zahran

To start, we affirm our rejection of the perspective that sexual harassment is a result of our failing to teach religion in schools, or that a solid moral compass is now absent thanks to the disintegration of the family, or any other interpretations that attempt to evade the socio-cultural reasons behind this phenomenon. In the previous article, we attempted to discuss these reasons, and explained that harassment is a manifestation of a rebellion of the slums. We described the slums as neighbourhoods inhabited by the marginalised, and overall we can say that they are characterised by four main features: first, that they are poor neighbourhoods and their inhabitants are generally poor; second, that the neighbourhoods are not planned and lack services and facilities that are not provided by any government presence; third, that the residents of these neighbourhoods are largely marginalised people that do not occupy clear, specific, or stable social positions, nor are they linked to any social institutions or have any special skills or capabilities; and fourth, that these neighbourhoods are largely new and the marginalised people who live in them are a disparate mix of people with no common history. Their relations with the wider population are characterised by a degree of antagonism and suspicion, and therefore these neighbourhoods lack socio-cultural values.

I ended my previous article with a clear question: “How can we, in light of the above-mentioned perspective, explain the presence of the middle classes within the phenomenon of harassment?” To answer this question, we must note from the outset the existence of a crushing housing crisis in addition to increasing and unprecedented numbers of marginalised people that have pushed many poor workers with simple social functions to reside in the slums. This pushes many of them, due to a lack of state presence or political life, to internalise the culture of the marginalised. This, in turn, increases the density and danger of the slums, which is the opposite of what occurred in previous eras. Several decades ago, those moving from the countryside to working-class neighbourhoods in Cairo lacked any trade or profession that would provide them with a specific social function, and as a result they moved between different jobs on the margins of society. However, it was observed that the neighbourhoods that welcomed these marginalised people had an influence on them, and imposed the neighbourhood value system on them, pushing them to move from their social status as marginalised to people holding social functions within the structures of society and its institutions. This could perhaps occur through serving in the army, becoming a stable street vendor, learning a specific trade, etc. Even those that continued with marginalised work were influenced by these neighbourhoods and the associated value system, and began to live a semi-stable life.

Now that the slums have swelled, the marginalised have begun to impose their own value system and lifestyle on the millions of non-marginalised people who live in these slums, and even within working-class neighbourhoods, the marginalised have succeeded in imposing their socio-cultural value system on the middle classes of society as a result of internal social and cultural polarisation. We can see this clearly through the example of the personality of a driver years ago, a man belonging to the lower classes, or perhaps the middle class, who succeeded in obtaining a decent and stable life for himself and his family. Compare this with the personality of microbus drivers or tuk-tuk drivers today. Many of these drivers, despite their enjoying a social status that should allow them to build a stable social life, mimic the behaviour of the marginalised because most of them live in slums or in working-class neighbourhoods that have become “slummised”.

The “slum-isation” of the lower class, and perhaps the middle class in some cases— as some of the middle class are entering slum neighbourhoods—this is a social process that has been ongoing for the past few decades, and linked to the inflation of slums and increasing number of marginalised individuals.  Slum neighbourhoods – the distorted arrangement of their buildings, heterogeneity of population, and lack of the state’s presence and its facilities – have transformed from merely living places to urban communities that virtually impose upon their dwellers a specific value system, one dominated by violence, aggression, and non-cohesion.

If we were to put it into a summative idea, we might say that the phenomenon of “slum-isation,” is one affecting wide segments of the middle class in the cities, and the consequent socio-cultural and socio-political results and repercussions of this, are more dangerous than the “reef-isation” of the cities, a phenomenon closely examined by researchers and politicians.

Perhaps the reader may notice that I have used two different expressions to describe poor neighbourhoods: “working-class neighbourhoods” and “slum neighbourhoods,” whereas many specialists in urban planning and construction do not consider this divide in terms of its social dimension, but rather whether or not the area was planned or not.  The neighbourhoods, all of the neighbourhoods, in terms of the division they depend on, “formal” or “informal,” and some of those who consider themselves leftists, see the “slum” as a value assessment for the purpose of alienating the reader, researcher or specialist in urban planning against these neighbourhoods. This idea has become vogue, especially in light of the rise of some of the voices on the right, or more specifically, fascism, which calls for the murder of street children, or repatriation of slum dwellers to the villages from which they came. This has been done in other countries suffering from overcrowded slums, so they decided to re-deport people to their villages as a solution to this problem!

And in turn we do not see any relationship between the description and names we give these things, and the fascist solutions we adopt to solve them. This is made clear by the types of alternatives and solutions which we give to treat the problem of slums.  And we generally see there is a difference between “unplanned” neighbourhoods, which the marginalised live in, and the “unplanned neighbourhoods” which the middle class live in. It is true that one of the most important features of slum neighbourhoods is that they are not planned in advance, but this condition alone does make a slum. Instead, slums depend on four conditions which I mentioned at the start of the article. Thus, despite that slums and working class neighbourhoods share the feature of being poor neighbourhoods, there is an important difference between them. First of these is that in a working-class neighbourhood, most of the residents have specific social functions inside society, whereas most of those in the slums are marginalised; secondly, slum areas are recently built and configured, and the state has not entered since. There is thus a lack of facilities and services, and the dwellings have no degree of harmony or homogeneity, whereas working-class neighbourhoods are old, and even if they began unplanned, a bit of planning was done to some degree or other, the state also entered to some extent, and the population created among themselves over time harmony and social and cultural homogeneity.

Thus, we argue that slum neighbourhoods were supposed to be going the direction of transitioning to working-class neighbourhoods over time, but this is being hindered by the increasing number of those marginalised, to the extent that it might be said we are “drowning” in slums on the one hand, and the cracking, or collapsing of social-cultural value system, the result of the polarisation and contradictions that plagues the middle class, on the other hand.

We are confronted here with a number of other questions, including, for example: what is the difference between the “reef-isation” of the cities and the “slum-isation” of “local neighbourhoods” and the “middle class”?  Is it possible to for us to agree with the view of one of the top architects of the “informal neighbourhoods” and even the expression “informal economy”? And what are the kinds of polarisation and transformations which led to the collapse of social-cultural structure of the middle class such it became susceptible to slum-isation?

The answer to these and other questions are the subject of our next article.

 

Farid Zahran is a publisher and writer. He is the co-founder of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party.

About the author

Farid Zahran

Farid Zahran is a publisher and writer. He is the co-founder of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party


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