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ANALYSIS: Shift in religious discourse on sexual harassment in Egypt

Sonia Farid

Published: Updated:

Sexual harassment has for years been plaguing the Egyptian society and endless initiatives were launched in an attempt to counter the growing phenomenon. It was only recently that al-Azhar, Egypt’s highest religious authority, decided to step in. Following an incident that went viral on social media, al-Azhar issued a statement in which it supported the criminalization of sexual harassment regardless of the circumstances and asserted that sexual harassment is religiously forbidden. The most remarkable part of the statement was the one about women’s responsibility, which has always been a point of contention in the debate about sexual harassment especially amongst religious scholars.

“Linking sexual harassment to women’s behavior or clothes is unacceptable,” said the statement. “Sexual harassment is a violation of women’s privacy, freedom, and dignity and its prevalence compromises their feelings of security.” The statement added that a society only becomes civilized when it respects women. Through its unconditional support for women, the statement did mark a major shift in religious discourse in Egypt, but whether it would have the desired impact on the ground remains to be seen.

While the statement conveyed an undebatable state on sexual harassment, questions about whether different departments and scholars at al-Azhar adopt the same view. This was mainly because a few hours after the statement was issued, the Azhar-affiliated Global Center for Electronic Religious Edicts, issued a report in which women were partially held accountable for sexual harassment. The report, which constituted the conclusion of a workshop on sexual harassment organized by the center, cited women’s appearance as one of the triggers of sexual harassment. “We condemn men’s behavior, but this does not mean that women are not to blame,” said the report. “While men are required not to gaze at women, women are also required to cover up.”

Mohamed Abdel Fadil, head of the Global Center for electronic Religious Edicts, denied allegations that al-Azhar is divided over the issue of sexual harassment. “The center did not issue a statement like al-Azhar did. This was just a report that summed up scholars’ input during the workshop,” he said, adding that workshop included different points of view on the issue. “The report is in no way a religious edict.”

Human rights researcher Amr Ezzat said that the discrepancy between the statement and the report is due to one of two possibilities. “The first possibility is that the stance taken in the statement did not go beyond the office of al-Azhar’s grand imam, which means it would not have the expected impact on society,” he said. “The second possibility is that different entities within al-Azhar have a communication problem.”

Ezzat commented on removing the report from the center’s website a few hours after its release as an indication that the statement was given precedence and that it represents the official stance of al-Azhar on sexual harassment. Ezzat, however, argued against the intervention of al-Azhar in the issue in the first place. “Even though the content of the statement is extremely positive, I still believe that al-Azhar should stick to its scholarly role and not interfere in issues related to freedoms and rights.”

In what seemed to be a confirmation of al-Azhar’s stance, the cover of its official newspaper Sawt al-Azhar (Voice of the Azhar) featured a number of unveiled women writers and activists whose views on sexual harassment were discussed in the issue. This was seen by women rights activists as a remarkable change in al-Azhar’s view on women’s dress code, an argument that was confirmed by the newspaper’s editor-in-chief Ahmed al-Sawi. “We wanted to show that al-Azhar does not categorize women based on their clothes and that harassment is unacceptable regardless of how a woman looks or what she wears,” he said. Sawi added that al-Azhar started a new approach based on involvement in social issues in order to take part in introducing reforms to society. “Through dealing with such issues, al-Azhar asserts its role as the beacon of moderate Islam.” Women rights activist and head of the Center for Egyptian Women's Legal Assistance Azza Soliman, one of the women on the newspaper’s cover, argued that while al-Azhar discourse on women’s issues has been quite moderate, action on the ground is still lacking. “The fact the al-Azhar is now addressing sexual harassment is very positive, yet it still needs to communicate with women’s right organizations and civil society to come up with real solutions,” she said, adding that al-Azhar should impact society through a discourse that supports women rights in general and stresses the necessity of respecting women.

Divisions within al-Azhar were, however, demonstrated by the individual comments of its scholars on the statement. Professor of Islamic culture at al-Azhar University Mohamed Abu Zeid al-Fiki argued that the statement looks at only one side of the problem.

“The statement overlooked the fact that women are required to dress decently and not to wear makeup in public, hence are also responsible,” he said. Fiki called upon al-Azhar to issue another statement in which they call upon girls to dress modestly and to abandon attempts at becoming attractive. Professor of comparative jurisprudence Ahmed Kerima begged to differ. “The statement issued by al-Azhar prioritized warding off harm over making gains,” he said. “Seeing the phenomenon of sexual harassment growing, al-Azhar saw that its main mission is to counter it and warn people of its consequences, which is now the main priority.”