The psychology of the harasser and how to fight back
CAIRO: As 17-year-old Layla is walking down a main street in Maadi, she notices a man straddling a bicycle on the corner. As she gets closer, she sees some unnaturally rapid movements underneath the man s galabiya as he hisses indecipherable words at her. A moment later Layla realizes what she s seeing; the man is masturbating.
On-the-street sexual harassment, whether auditory, visual or sensual, is more than common. This and other such incidents map out a widespread and frequent attitude toward women; Layla is not the first woman and obviously will not be the last to have her visual sphere spoiled and violated in such a manner.
In this incident, Layla shouts at him You re filth! Would you like someone to do that to your sister? Or your mother? then she bolts into a nearby shop, shaking with shock and anger, while the man calmly pedals off down the street.
One and a half years later, Layla maintains a phobia. The young girl still feels her heart palpitate and crosses the street to avoid anyone on a bicycle.
The stories are many: Dina, another girl, who walks down the same street as Layla, almost every day passing the trendy coffee shop on her right to catch a taxi to university, suddenly feels a swift pinch on her left hip and almost simultaneously a bicycle rider zooms by her as she passes a corner. Realizing what just happened, her mind races from How embarrassing! ; Who saw that? ; Should I just go home now? to thoughts like Is everyone on the street looking at my rear? and Why didn’t I just swing my bag at him? Push him off his damned bike? Surprisingly, nobody probably saw it happen. But to Dina, she felt she was under a microscope and the whole neighborhood was focusing “on her rear end, as she puts it.
Even though the offense might be fleeting, the reaction to it might not be. As demonstrated in these two true stories, the thoughts that follow are often haunting and drenched in self-blame. Initially, there is disbelief about how long the person takes to react to harassment, as in Dina’s case. Usually, a few moments of shock triggered anger. Often women experience an exaggerated sense of self-blame more than anything else, but sometimes it dies down when they allow themselves to realize that those seconds of paralysis are normal.
Women everywhere encounter sexual innuendo on the street, but what sets this kind of behavior firmly in the category of harassment in Cairo? In the West, comments and catcalls on the street are considered more “flattering so to speak. If a guy calls out to you, “Hey baby, it feels more like a compliment. Women usually think, “Oh, I must be looking good today. It is sexual and it habitually means, “You’re looking sexy.
In Cairo, on the other hand, similar comments make a woman feel self-conscious, stripping her of her ability to blend in. It is the equivalent of someone in the West yelling from across the street, “Hey white girl. It is stereotypical and it makes women feel singled out of the crowd.
When walking on busy streets, especially among heavy crowds, people naturally assume a kind of anonymity. If someone takes this anonymity away, he leaves his victim feeling vulnerable, particularly if she is a woman. It leaves her feeling suddenly naked and completely exposed. Even very independent women unexpectedly find themselves feeling in need of protection, combined with a sense that she is not sufficient in and of herself.
This feeling of insufficiency is why foreigners residing in Egypt or very self-confident Egyptians are typically bothered more intensely by the feelings that harassment brings out. Women who are not brought up to feel that that they’re the weaker sex suddenly find that harassment brings them down, reducing the equation to one of more primitive muscle power. Harassment completely annihilates the status achieved from mental power, financial position, or even family name. That power is pulled out from under women when they are publicly harassed.
In order to avoid harassment, prepare for it and deal with it if it occurs, first, one has to recognize the process of harassment. What is really going on? It’s interesting to notice that sexual harassers are usually people who are oppressed. Good examples of this are soldiers on the streets with their uniforms and rifles (that they are not trained how to use). They’re given a title, stripes on their shoulders and access to very authoritative symbols, yet they don’t receive a salary that can feed their family at the end of the day. In reality, they don’t have authority, so they are in constant frustration. When there is a wide gap between image and reality, this frustration becomes the dominant factor in harassment (being their reaction to frustration).
Unsurprisingly, you don’t find lucrative happy men harassing people. And that’s key to understanding why sexual harassment is so predominant on Egyptian streets and how it has become more and more common by the year. Statistically most of the harassment that we see is coming from frustrated people targeting women who look comfortable.
Veiled girls get harassed as much as the unveiled, so it’s not necessarily about the body parts that women are showing. It is important to recognize that sexuality so to speak is not the dominant theme in harassment.
It is more about the frustrated reaching out to the non-frustrated. We are talking here about people who are hurting and have no outlet. It might seem to the passing woman that harassers are simply passing time, but in reality the act stems from deep hurt and antagonism directed at society.
Therefore, we must realize that the more aggravated the state of the harassers’ frustration, the more they allow themselves to violate others. The more wronged they feel, the more they feel they should wrong others, a common human reaction. When we look at the psychology of hate and anger, it all stems from the seed: “If I’m hurting, I’m going to lash out.
What happened in the Eid holiday, though, is not typical of what we have seen in past decades on Cairo streets. Rather, the incident seems to represent a new generation reaching a whole new caliber of harassment.
The young adults and the teens – some no more than 12 years old – involved in recent Eid incidents may very well be the consequence of a series of societal changes that are disturbing the average Egyptian parent.
Public schools and their ill-planned attempts to become secular by eliminating religious teachings in 2002 and replacing them with a highly ignored and low-graded “ethics and values studies have not helped.
Another factor could be the gradual neglect of police adaab and police ahdaas to control perverted behavior; the police ahdaas had always been a force that treated seriously the real threat of delinquent teenagers and those performing public acts of “rude behavior. The police systems are still there, but they have noticeably pulled back their involvement.
While these extremely limiting influences have been undermined, in their place we find emerging influences of an equally extreme and opposite direction: easy access to sexually explicit material – from bigger-than-life seductive billboards all over Cairo to the inevitable satellite TV programming and Internet.
The influences are extreme and are leaving behind a generation of youth who are both confused and frustrated. So we get guys forming a posse to lash out at girls; we get girls covering their hair with a veil but simultaneously wearing skin-colored, fitted spandex shirts and trousers. Where is the normalcy? Apparently it is becoming a minority in this generation of youth.
The harassment in the Eid, however, was not targeted specifically at either conservative women or those who are not. Notably, an equal amount of offense is generated from harassment whether a woman is veiled or dressed conservatively or not, since it is the idea of being imposed upon that is dominant here. It is very much like rape. Rape would be humiliating to anybody.
While all harassment is an infringement on personal sp
ace and comfort, there are degrees of severity. If harassment is only internalized visually where a woman can control it by shifting her gaze, she maintains a certain marginal amount of control. The worst kind of harassment is tactile, when she’s touched.
Assertive people probably feel much more violated than people who are normally submissive (practicing submissive dynamics on a daily basis).
Fighting back against harassment starts with empowerment. Women on Cairo streets can play a role in avoiding harassment or at least in minimizing its effects. How should a woman avoid harassment, putting in mind the mindset of the harasser and placing the behavior in a larger context?
Women have to realize that it’s out there, regardless of where you are and what you’re wearing. It’s true that a woman who dresses provocatively will get attention, triggering people’s gaze (probably from women as much as men), but that does not normally result in harassment. The frustrated mind will act. The comfortable person will notice it, look at it, but not act on it by imposing himself on another.
At the same time, just because there are harassers, doesn’t mean that going out on the Cairo streets involves a whole elaborate ordeal. It’s important for a woman to avoid harassment, but also to do it in the least disruptive way to her.
Preparedness is key. When a woman is prepared, the damage is limited and she can react immediately. The window of opportunity that the harasser normally has (where he can escape without any consequence) may not even exist.
One of the best steps to take is to purchase a whistle. Use it, as opposed to your voice. A long high-pitched siren will bring a lot of attention. And that’s exactly what the harasser does not want.
Basically don’t loiter on the streets, move like a man on a mission with wide strong strides, head up and facing straight ahead, without smiling (unfortunately). Like a soldier’s march, if you will.
Think ahead so as not to be surprised when you are in a harassment situation.
A lot of women like to walk down the street in a self-contained bubble, wearing dark glasses, earplugs or even talking on the phone. This approach has not proved to be very effective or useful because it further reflects a state of comfort, which triggers and exacerbates the frustration.
Definitely if you have the choice to avoid walking alone, take it. Most of the time when you are with your friends, you have more group courage. You are more likely to act defensively and act quicker.
To the foreigners out there, when you walk by the kiosks with three or four soldiers standing around say in a loud assertive voice “Al-salamo aleikom, to which they must reply. Having exchanged this comment of peace, they will recognize that you’re not so foreign to the culture. At this point, they’re more likely to perceive you as more equal or closer to them.
Abier El-Barbary is a Cairo-based Canadian psychotherapist of Egyptian origins. She is currently a member of the American University in Cairo (AUC) faculty, and a psychologist at the AUC-run Counseling Center.