“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there. The proverbial opening words of L.P. Hartley’s “The Go-Between , though set in 1900s England, can’t be more suited to many aspects of life in Egypt today.
I grew up on stories of how an innocent catcall or whistle by a rowdy youth had grave consequences in the past. In certain areas in Egypt, it was common for the offender to suddenly find himself in the unwanted company of a group of fiery neighborhood bullies – the gate-keepers of good manners – who would shave off his head completely, just to set an example.
And it worked, too. Naming and shaming always does.
So it was with great consternation that I read the findings of a recent study conducted by the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights (ECWR) about the deplorable state of sexual harassment on Egypt’s streets.
The study, which surveyed 2,020 Egyptian participants divided equally between men and women and 109 foreign women living or traveling in Egypt, was conducted in the governorates of Cairo, Giza and Qalubiya.
It found that 48.4 percent of Egyptian and 51.4 percent of foreign women of all ages are subjected to sexual harassment. What’s worse was that the majority of incidents took place in public places: 69 percent on the streets, 49.1 percent on public transport, 42.4 percent in parks and coffee shops, 29 percent in educational institutions, 19.8 percent on beaches, and 6.2 percent in the workplace.
But alas, we no longer see any shaved heads, at least not for that reason. Though this may not have been the most human rights-complaint way of dealing with the problem, at least it was a deterrent in the absence of law and order. What about the womens’ rights to feel safe and respected?
What’s more shocking is that today even harassment has overstepped the acceptable limits of decency, going beyond the verbal to delve into the murky waters of touching, stalking and indecent exposure, according to ECWR chair Nehad Abul Komsan.
The straw that broke the camel’s back was when a group of brave bloggers exposed the horror of being a woman on the streets of Cairo in December 2006.
Ironically the notorious mass Downtown harassment incident where hundreds of young men surrounded a handful of women – veiled, unveiled young and old -grabbing them and tearing off their clothes, took place during the Islamic post-Ramadan feast holiday.
There were no police present to stop the violations and even when the few who were present were asked to do something, they were told that there was nothing to be done. “Happy Eid! they said.
Officers even refused to file complaints by some of the harassed women at the police station because it would reflect badly on their peers, according to some blog reports.
The incidents were initially also met with no coverage in the press and on satellite channels. There were allegations that Al Jazeera had footage of the episode but was given strict orders by the authorities not to air it.
Their silence was only broken when a guest on Dream TV, journalist Nawara Negm, threw the bombshell on air during an interview on daily talk show Aashera Masa’an, and from there the story migrated from cyber chat-rooms and blogs, to satellite TV and the independent press. But all the while, the Interior Ministry stood by its version of the story, denying the incident altogether and insisting that no one had filed any complaints.
Clearly the ministry was aware of the grave consequences to “Egypt’s image and the effect of that on the tourism industry. So instead of admitting and confronting the scandal, it did what it does best: deny and dis-inform. Travel guidebooks now warn female tourists of the likelihood of being victims of sexual harassment or even rape If they visit Egypt, but that’s the tourism ministry’s problem, one assumes.
Like Cairo’s chaotic traffic, the shameful issue of sexual harassment and how it’s being dealt with is a microcosm of the rampant chaos and anarchy in most aspects of Egyptian life.
One can only wonder about the nature of the fierce debate that is bound to explode during the discussion of a draft law currently in the pipeline at the National Council for Women, which aims to define sexual harassment, criminalize it, and set out procedures for evidence and proof.
Don’t be surprised when the official spokesman of the “holier than thou front argues that women are to blame for not dressing “modestly or that socio-economic conditions, which hinder marriage, are a justification.
Some of our legislators need to have their heads shaved off too.
Rania Al Malkyin the Chief Editor of Daily News Egypt.