“You break our fast”: Women struggle from different kinds of harassment in Ramadan

Fatma Lotfi
10 Min Read
In this undated image made from video released by the producers of "Awel el Kheit," or "the Thread," which aired in May 2013 on the private TV station ONTV, Waleed Hammad walks in a busy shopping district in Cairo, Egypt, dressed as a woman, as a hidden camera crew films him for an investigative story on sexual harassment. The 24-year-old actor dressed conservatively for his mission into the secret world of sexual harassment and abuse on the streets of Cairo, donning a long skirt and sleeved shirt and covering his head like many Egyptian women. (AP Photo/Courtesy of Awel el Kheit)

Since Ramadan has begun, the holy spiritual month in which people compete to perform good deeds, many Egyptian women reported facing different, but not new, kinds of harassment that range from insults, loudly rebukes, spitting, yelling, and sometimes beatings due to their outfits.

It is widely typical in a patriarchal society that men would try to change what they believe are sins in Ramadan, especially if they think they have the last say regarding women’s outfits–even if they don’t even personally know those women.

Consequently, walking down the streets without being modest enough according to Egyptian society’s standards or without putting on headscarves or a Abaya (full-length outer garment worn by some Muslim females) could simply lead to insults, curses, or public harsh criticisms.

Women say that those men who bother them in the streets usually repeat comments such as “O’ Allah, I am fasting (meaning he is fighting temptation), or, “you are breaking our fast (accusing her of seducing men)” and, “I ask forgiveness of Allah (apparently for her or for himself for gazing at her.)

Apart from Ramadan, women and girls face on a daily basis distinct forms of sexual violence in the streets of Egypt, in both public and private spaces, whether in transportation vehicles or in workplaces. Women are usually blamed by society for being subjected to such acts. They are accused of ‘provoking’ men via their outfits or actions.

A report issued by the Thomson Reuters Foundation in October 2017 showed that Cairo is the world’s most dangerous megacity for women.

An additional report by the Brazilian-based organisation ‘Instituto Promundo’ revealed that 64% of men admitted to sexually harassing women in the streets of Egypt. Harassment forms of ranged from ogling, stalking to even rape.

Meanwhile, an earlier study by the United Nations in 2013 showed that 99.3% of Egyptian women surveyed have been subjected to sexual harassment in the streets.

Gender violence

“It is a very complicated issue which certainly has cultural roots,” Said Sadek, a sociology professor at the American University in Cairo (AUC), told Daily News Egypt.

“When a man sees a woman in the streets, he expects that she definitely would follow his standards regarding outfits. If she was not wearing hijab, then she is challenging his masculinity. This is how he thinks,” Sadek explained.

Therefore, some men tend to annoy or harass women in the streets to prove to themselves that they are still ‘the masters’ of society, Sadek added. 

He also mentioned that the reason behind men’s aggression toward women in Ramadan or at any time is because of a feeling of loss. “They feel they lost their economic and social power and dominant position over females, especially since most women are currently economically independents or active partners in society,” Sadek highlighted. 

Furthermore, Sadek noted that cursing or insulting women in the streets over their outfits in Ramadan gives men a sense of satisfaction. “They want to restore their cultural and patriarchal dominant status in society. They want to control everything to maintain their identity,” Sadek stressed.   

“I would not even call it harassment, it is gender violence that takes different shapes,” the professor concluded. 

I fear they will hurt me

Merna Maher, a 25-year old pharmacist, was sitting next to an elderly man on a bus when he frowned: “I ask forgiveness of Allah,” and glared at her.

“This often happens to me,” Maher told DNE.

“I am a Christian woman, so I do not wear the hijab (head cover). However, I was modest and wore a long sleeved jacket. But this changed nothing,” Maher noted.

Maher recalled how frustrated she felt at that moment, adding that this man kept staring at her mobile’s screen as she was texting her fiancé.

Another time, Maher remembered a teenage girl who grabbed her hair in the street and then ran to her colleagues to laugh at Maher. “I did nothing. I always cannot react in such situations,” Maher expressed.

Maher continued to elaborate that even in preparatory school, she has gone through unforgettable situations in the streets that she could has not recovered from until this moment.  “They could beat or push me or even sexually harass me. I never was able to take a reaction. This strengthened my feelings of how weak I am, who could not do anything to protect herself, not to mention the terrible feelings over the situation itself.”

Meanwhile, translator and content creator, Monica El-Taweel, 26,  revealed that she always faces this kind of aggression in the streets, hearing comments of “O’ Allah, I am fasting,” or “you are breaking our fast,” and sometimes even, “go to hell.”

“Most times, I get really scared. I fear that some of them will eventually hurt me,” El-Taweel told DNE.

In addition to insults and rebuke in the streets, El-Taweel said that she also faces harsh critique if she eats during Ramadan fasting days. “I went to a restaurant at Cairo’s downtown area to have a meal but they refused to let me in, saying they could not serve me during Ramadan days. However, I insisted to eat inside,” El-Taweel added.

He hit me in head

Randa Khaled, a marketing specialist aged 29, said that she got used to hearing “O’ Allah. I am fasting” a dozen times a day during the month of Ramadan. “A woman once kicked me off a bus to take my seat because she believes I am not fasting (Randa does wear a hijab),” she told DNE.

“Even my mother kept blaming me and urging me to put a headscarf in Ramadan to not breaking men’s fasts!” Khaled added. 

Khaled acknowledged that she always ignores such comments or actions. However, she said that those actions have no justifications. “Fasting is imposed on people who have to be responsible for their actions, not annoy women in the streets or blame them over their failure to control themselves,” Khaled said.

But things sometimes go farther than just undesirable comments. Zahwa Essam, a student at the Faculty of Arts, Kafrelsheikh University was travelling from her hometown, Alexandria, when a driver, at a bus station, hit her hard on the head.

“He yelled at me: ‘Hey slut’, this (hit) is for you to cover your hair in Ramadan,” Essam told DNE, adding that she quickly left the place because she feared that if she took an action the other drivers might gather together and hurt her.

I feel I am vulnerable

Mariam Shawki, a young pharmacist was walking with her friends in the streets, (all without hijab), a few days before Ramadan, when an elderly man yelled at them “Be modest, Ramadan is coming soon,” Shawki told DNE. 

She added, “He also said that theses ‘scantily clad outfits’ are not permitted during Ramadan.” 

However, even women with headscarves face criticisms over their outfits. Asmaa Gad, a 27-year-old pharmacist, said that people always call on her to wear an abaya or a veil during the holy month.

“A tuk-tuk driver once urged me to put on a veil because I am too beautiful to seduce men and break their fast,” Gad recalled.

Additionally, her colleagues at work in a public hospital also criticise her outfit. “I am one of those who changes their religious habits for the sake of Ramadan. I am committed to the hijab and pray whether during Ramadan or not,” Gad added.

Meanwhile, other women reported that men or boys spit on them in the streets during Ramadan.

Samiha El-Sawaf, a 30-year-old architect also faces such situations. “A man once yelled at me saying: Is this a suitable appearance for Ramadan? And you get surprised when we raped you,” El-Sawaf told DNE.

“I feel I am vulnerable as if I am undressed,” El-Sawaf added.

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A journalist in DNE's politics section with more than six years of experience in print and digital journalism, focusing on local political issues, terrorism and human rights. She also writes features on women issues and culture.