Is Cairo the ‘most dangerous megacity in the world’ for women?

Sonia Farid
Sonia Farid - Special to Al Arabiya English
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Cairo is the most dangerous megacity in the world for women, according to a poll conducted by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

In the first poll to be conducted on the conditions of women in cities whose population exceeds 10 million people, and which included 19 cities, Cairo was deemed worst in terms of sexual harassment.

While the results of this poll were far from surprising, especially for women rights activists and Egyptian women in general, they were labelled inaccurate by parties that underlined the survey’s failure to rely on confirmed data and scientific methodology.

The National Council for Women NCW was the first entity to question the accuracy of the poll, which, it argued, did not rely on Egyptian or international documented statistics or on recognized studies on women’s issues.

“This poll, on the contrary, based its conclusions on the impressions of a few women rights activists, only 15 to 20 from each city, without mentioning the criteria for choosing them,” said the statement issued by NCW in response to the poll. “All what the poll mentioned was that the interviewees were divided into five categories: academics, civil society activists, healthcare personnel, social commentators, and decision-makers.”

The statement noted that it was a “perception poll” that focused on experts’ views on a number of topics such as sexual harassment, rape, female genital mutilation, under-age and forced marriages, and femicide. “This was done without any reference to internationally recognized indicators and without employing the necessary research methodology.”

The statement added that the poll overlooked the efforts continuously exerted to overcome challenges women face in Cairo: “The council is aware of the difficulties women encounter in Cairo and that is why the Women Empowerment Strategy 2030, approved by the president this year prior to the release of the poll results, was drafted, which demonstrates how the Egyptian state prioritizes women issues and gender equality.”

Professor of sociology Rashad Abdel Latif labelled the poll “unfair” and “illogical,” arguing that Cairo is much safer than many cities around the world. “In a city like New York, for example, women cannot walk alone after 10:00 pm for fear of getting mugged and assaulted, while in Cairo women can stay out till 2:00 am,” he said. “

I am not saying that Cairo is 100% safe, but it’s definitely not the most dangerous. At least we don’t have a crime problem like many major cities.” Abdel Latif, however, admitted that a lot needs to be done in order to make Cairo a safer place for women. “This starts with a strict law that deters anyone who engages in violent actions against women followed by dealing with the social problems that trigger the prevalence of these practices such as poverty and unemployment.”

Mervat al-Tellawi, chairperson of the Arab Women Organization, said that the poll aims at tarnishing Egypt’s image and that it was conducted for political reasons. “It is true that there are cases of violence against women in Cairo, but this poll makes it look like we live in a jungle,” she said. “There are countries where women live in constant violence and repression such as Yemen and Somalia.”

Tellawi stressed the necessity of firmly responding to the poll in order to present the Egyptian society for what it really is in front of the world.

MP and head of the Human Rights Committee at the Egyptian House of Representatives Margaret Azer had a similar view. “Cairo is a huge city with an extremely dense population, so incidents of sexual violence are always a possibility, yet they are not the norm,” she said. “Plus sexual harassment is a problem everywhere and alleging that Cairo ranks first is just an attempt to ruin Egypt’s reputation.”

Fathi Farid, coordinator of the Aman Initiative for countering violence against women, slammed the Egyptian government and critics of the poll for denying the growing threat of sexual harassment in Cairo and accused the state of not doing enough to stop this phenomenon. “In late 2014, NGOs were no longer given permits for field work, which drove volunteers to make themselves available in the streets in crowded places on holidays to protect women at their own responsibility,” he said.

“There were also reports that the police were sometimes involved in violence against women.” Regarding the projects and initiatives the state launches, Farid said that they cost a lot of money that is taken from taxpayers then no results are seen on the ground. “In fact, women are the ones who are now protecting themselves and are learning how to face sexual harassment.”

Women rights activist Azza Kamel argued that the debate about the accuracy of the Thomson Reuters poll is a waste of time since whether it is the most dangerous or not, Cairo is “a sexual harassment city par excellence,” as she put it. “The past six years witnessed horrendous sexual assaults that did not spare toddlers and we still hear people blaming the victim and talking about what women wear,” she wrote.

Kamel referred to a statement made by lawyer Nabih al-Wahsh in which he said that harassing and raping a woman who wears ripped jeans is a “national duty” and wondered how such an incident is overlooked in a city already plagued by sexual harassment and how instead there is focus on the credibility of the poll. “Isn’t this statement in itself a crime? How come nothing was done about it? Isn’t the state supposed to protect women from this kind of incitement?”

On a more personal note, TV anchor and human rights activist Shahira Amin summed up what it feels to be a woman in Cairo: “Everything about the city is difficult for women. We see women struggling in all aspects. Even a simple walk on the street, and they are subjected to harassment, whether verbal or even physical,” she said.

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