“The Egyptians’ lack of power over their lives is translating into a pervasive new style of interaction designed to provide some minimal illusion of strength. Shop girls are ruder, bands of school kids more antagonistic, tradesmen craftier, petty theft is on the rise and [sexual harassment] probably is too.
I wrote these words in 2002 for Middle East International, having had my breast grabbed one morning on a busy Cairo street, the first time such a thing had happened in nearly 20 years of residence. What was happening to the Egyptians? It was spring, post-9/11. Tourism had plummeted, while unemployment and inflation soared. The Palestinian intifada was escalating, and US President George W. Bush had dubbed Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon “a man of peace. Egyptian students took to the streets to condemn Israel and its American supporters.
The government allowed a few demonstrations, then cracked down, killing one and injuring some 260 protestors. How much venting could it permit, when anti-Israel sentiments so easily fused with anti-government ones? Political and economic conditions have since worsened. The sense of impotence and frustration has grown, alongside the emptiness of the ruling party’s rhetoric and its ongoing denial of civil rights. At a recent Sexual Harassment Forum hosted by the American University in Cairo (AUC), it was clear that various forms of harassment have become commonplace behaviors that cut across age and class barriers. But Egyptians aren’t just getting ruder, they’re getting dangerous, and the state is setting the example. Last October downtown Cairo witnessed a mob’s ugliness, a crowd of men and boys driven by thwarted energy. It’s unsurprising that the target of their wrath was the object of their often unattainable desire: women and girls, perceived as the weakest element in their midst. What is remarkable, given the current ambiance, is that this sort of thing doesn’t happen daily. The assaults have, however, yielded a fruitful controversy, since the treatment of women is at the heart of Egyptian’s society’s self-image, not to mention a barometer of its wellbeing. Galal Amin, an economist, social commentator and AUC panel member, linked the rise in hooliganism to Egypt’s economy in the mid-1980s, when today’s young men were born. The Gulf oil boom had waned, sending Egyptian workers home where they remained idle, or were underemployed. Meanwhile, the International Monetary Fund pressured the government to repay debts. Public expenditures were slashed accordingly; education, health and other services suffered. The largest segment of Egypt’s current population, therefore, grew up deprived of both basic services and basic rights, since the Emergency Law, introduced in 1981, was in effect from the time of their birth. The social ramifications of martial law were not examined by the AUC panel, but the denial of due process empowers the state at the expense of civic freedom and the accompanying sense of belonging to a community worth respecting and protecting. Repressive religious attitudes towards sexuality were briefly cited as fueling harassment, especially when the perpetrators are young men. As one AUC undergraduate woman commented, “I’ve never met a 17- year old who wasn’t sexually frustrated .
But the demonization of sex, alongside the eroticization of the ordinary, has exacerbated matters. Perhaps to combat the effects of Internet porn, things like handshaking (between unmarried men and women) and statues depicting the human form, have attracted fatwas. This only succeeds in characterizing women as a threat, instead of highlighting and promoting their roles in society. Veiling has long been a means of safely negotiating public space, but veiled women are getting grabbed too. “You’re not veiled enough, some say. So what is a woman to do? Stay home? Veil to the eyelids? Or protest the hypocrisy, both religious and political, that plagues every Egyptian’s life? More women, it seems, may be opting for the latter. Rebecca Chiao, a spokesperson for the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights, outlined a campaign to stop sexual harassment, involving media and public outreach, lobbying for new laws and penalties, and an educational film for primary school children. “The Street is Ours has garnered unprecedented public support, suggesting women’s concern about being pressured into remaining at home when their economic and other civic contributions are most desperately needed. Despite the state’s official stance of fostering women’s participation in development, the ECWR affirms that sexual harassment has become “an official tool of intimidation. The ECWR cites the abuse of Sinai women at the hands of police interrogators following the 2004 terrorist attacks, and the intimidation of women voters at the 2005 election polls. Mariz Tadros, also a panel member and a political science professor at AUC, likewise called attention to “the failure of state feminism in defending women’s constitutional rights. Suzanne Mubarak’s National Women’s Council neither condemned the October assaults nor demanded an investigation. The NWC was also conspicuously silent last May, when women protestors were attacked by allegedly state-sponsored thugs.
As Tadros trenchantly pointed out, the women whose cries for help went unanswered by the downtown police in the October attacks would have done better to shout curses at President Hosni Mubarak. Internal security would have rushed them from the scene to a prison at once. While the regime pays lip-service to women’s rights, this year’s Egyptian Women’s Day passed unnoticed. A March 16 conference of 800 delegates from women’s development organizations, and press and media, was cancelled by the Ministry of Education only hours before taking place. Topping the conference’s agenda was draft legislation to restore the quota system that once ensured women’s seats in Parliament. Morocco has a 10 percent quota, Jordan, 5 percent, and women hold 10 percent of seats in the Syrian Parliament. Egypt’s previous quota, guaranteeing women 7 percent, was abolished in 1986, and numbers have since dwindled to an all-time low of 2 percent.
This November, the National Democratic Party-majority Parliament rejected the call to restore the quota on the egregious grounds that men and women should be equal before the law. Aside from the dire consequences to national health and productivity, denying women a voice in government endorses their marginalization at every level of society, and therefore plays into the hands of the extremists that the regime fears most. Egyptian women have all the proof they need of the state’s concern for their welfare. It’s up to them, through civil society and individual initiatives, to empower themselves.
Maria Golia is author of a book on Cairo titled “City of Sand. She wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR