The roots of sexual harassment

Abdel-Rahman Hussein
7 Min Read

Police concentrate on political role at expense of social responsibilities

CAIRO: Can the ever-increasing phenomenon of sexual harassment in the streets of Cairo be attributed to a social malaise or political discontent? Can its roots be traced to the arena of sexuality or religion? Or was it just a security meltdown? A discussion held at the Cairo International Center for Human Rights (CICHR) Wednesday attempted to answer these pertinent questions.

The recent reports of sexual harassment in downtown Cairo during the Eid Al-Fitr holiday have made the discussion even more relevant. In fact the lecture was entitled: “Sexual Harassment Downtown, and had four speakers from different fields of expertise.

Nihad Abu Qumsan, head of the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights was the first speaker. Her main premise was that incidents of harassment have been on the rise ever since May 25, 2005, the day pro-government groups publicly harassed female protestors. “Why? Because it was used as a political tool, A psychological barrier was lifted from people’s heads; it made it easier to do, she said.

Qumsan added that the number of sexual harassment complaints her center has received since that day has increased alarmingly. “We have received many and strange complaints, she said. “It has become more serious, the actions are becoming more physical. Qumsan dismissed the notion that what a woman wears determines the chances of harassment. “Girls in conservative dress are being harassed at public bus stations in mid afternoon. Judging from the number and type of complaints we are receiving, all the stereotypes have been dismissed, she said.

A contributing factor to all this is that the police here are geared more towards political activities rather than societal ones, according to Qumsan. “Harassment can happen within the police station itself [if a woman files a complaint], she said, “The police are not interested in following up complaints of this nature.

Foreign tourists in the country are also subjected to such harassment, Qumsan said, stating that foreign tourists often talk about “another Egypt, separate from the idealized view. Qumsan added that this phenomenon of sexual harassment will lead to graver repercussions on Egyptian society and push it further into chaos. “There is no interest in people in this country, she said.

Qumsan added that there were also incidents of sexual harassment that occurred on El-Haram Street in Giza after local football team Al-Ahli won the African Champions league.

Journalist Nabil Sharaf El-Din was up next and he was adamant that the events in the Eid did happen. He said that the prioritizing of political police work over criminal police work was behind the incidents. El-Din, a policeman himself for 15 years, said, “All the reasons stem from the political problems we face here. It is a governmental problem. El Din also lambasted the religious movement in Egypt, describing its adherents as people who “justify those in power and the rich and “who have not helped create a minimal standard of ethics.

El-Din did not mince words. “The kids who did this [the harassment] I’m sure are the same ones who watch [famed Muslim televangelist] Amr Khaled and pray taraweeh [extra prayers performed after the evening prayers in Ramadan]. He added, “Religious hysteria and sexual hysteria are two sides of the same coin. Instead of obsessing about how girls act and what they wear, they should be worrying about corruption and poverty and what to do about it.

Lebanese writer and sociologist Dr Dalal El-Bizry also touched on the religious theme in her speech. “Religion has hegemony over people’s minds in the Arab world . and this mentality is a fundamentalist one, she said. Religion in the Arab world “is not spiritual, it’s marketing and this leads to a duality that results in the sort of incidents we have witnessed, she added.

El-Bizry added that this harassment is not just caused by religious or political complications, but is also the result of an existentialist dilemma between the two genders. This is due to lack of vision for the future and a lack of hope, which are pervasive throughout the Arab world. She mentioned the Arab-Israeli conflict as a reflection of this. “Our Arab-Israeli problem is one of identity. And this creates otherness, eventually we ascribe this otherness amongst ourselves, and that is the case between men and women [in the region], where there is resentment and bitterness between them.

Dr Jihad Aouda, professor of international relations at Helwan University and the final speaker, said that Egypt is facing a cultural problem with sexual harassment in the streets and in the workplace. This is due to the disparity between what is happening on the educational level and in the household and public spaces. “Education and the family are the source of values in any society. This is no longer the case here. Closed societies lead to phenomena such as these, where alternatives to the prevalent system arise and there are conflicting modes of thought, he said.

Head of the CICHR’s programs Moatez Al-Fugery, who hosted the discussion, recounted an anecdote from a conference in Denmark he attended to highlight how the Eid Al-Fitr incident had repercussion around the world. In the conference hall, a Danish female human rights advocate walked in to hand out leaflets condemning the harassment that had occurred during the incident.

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