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Egypt’s growing tolerance of harassment towards women

Sexual harassment was not always at the level it is now. But as it becomes more acceptable, it becomes more widespread

H.A. Hellyer

Published: Updated:

Human dignity. That was one of the slogans during Egypt’s 2011 revolution: bread, freedom, social justice, human dignity. In truth, there should not have been the need to say that after ‘social justice’ – because any society that has achieved a modicum of social justice, truthfully, would have had to address the need to deliver human dignity. But then, when it comes to Egypt’s revolution, it’s one more unresolved challenge after another. No less, it seems, when it comes to addressing the human dignity of Egyptians – including, or even especially, the women among them.

According to a nationally representative survey of Egyptians last June, 95 percent of Egyptians consider sexual harassment to be a ‘very serious’ problem. Days later, they were reminded why. During the protests and demonstrations that took place in Tahrir Square between June 29th and July 7th, 186 cases of ‘horrific mob sexual assault/rape’ took place, according to the co-founder of a harassment watchdog. Rebecca Chiao of HarassMap reminds us this goes far beyond demonstrations: “sexual harassment or assault was experienced by 99.3 percent of Egyptian women surveyed by the 2013 study by U.N. Women”.

Many do continue to believe that the victim is to blame for ‘provoking’ such harassment

H.A. Hellyer

It is, therefore, incredibly bizarre to note an episode that made waves in Egyptian media recently. A young female student at Cairo University was surrounded by a group of male students who, according the anti-harassment campaign ‘I Witnessed Harassment’, verbally and physically assaulted her. The university dean at first drew attention to the clothes she was wearing, while saying the harassers would be punished. He later apologised for the ‘misunderstanding’, clarifying that the young woman would not be referred for investigation.

Misplaced blame

Others in the public arena, however, were not so generous. Tamer Amin, a television presenter, drew yet more attention to the student’s clothing – as though that would somehow spread blame around for the harassment taking place. But that is, indeed, part of the issue: many do continue to believe, according to activists such as those in HarassMap, that the victim is to blame for ‘provoking’ such harassment.

Some insist that sexual assaults are the result of paid provocateurs – and certainly, there may be those. Indeed, that has been a suspicion of many civil society groups, especially over the period between 2011-2013, where it seemed that sexual violence of this nature was being used as a weapon. But what is also unmistakable is that society at large in Egypt has underlying issues about the manner in which women dress.

Sexual harassment was not always at the level it is now – but as it becomes more acceptable, it becomes more widespread

H.A. Hellyer

Those who patrolled Tahrir Square as part of ‘Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment’ during protests testify to the fact that while a few of the harassers may be paid provocateurs, most are not. Indeed, most are just opportunistic bystanders in the crowd. That sort of activity was unheard during the 18 days of January 25-February 11 during the initial revolutionary uprising in 2011 – but it is now a reality. Sexual harassment was not always at the level it is now – but as it becomes more acceptable, it becomes more widespread.

Clothes and catcalls

It is not simply about the way in which a woman dresses that provokes harassment – the data shows clearly that substantial numbers of victims were wearing very conservative clothing, including the headscarf or even the face veil. The presence of the woman, it seems, is enough in and of itself. Rather, it is about the choice that the woman exercises on the one hand, and the tolerance of society to allow others to question those choices on the other.

That problem does not simply exhibit itself in how women are told to put more clothes on – but also about what they ought to take off. The woman’s autonomy to wear what she sees fit – and society’s tolerance to ensure that whether or not it is approved of or not, she ought not to be penalised in certain ways – is at the root of this.

Women, for example, may get catcalls on the streets for wearing particular types of clothing – because society has developed a tolerance for that sort of invasion of the woman’s private space. On the other hand, women may be penalised elsewhere for wearing too much. Increasing numbers of restaurants, for example, are making it clear they have a policy of non-entry for women in religiously observant clothing – while this would be grounds for lawsuits in many European countries, the irony is that a significant portion of the Westernised upper-class elite in Cairo encourages that sort of control.

Wearing too much?

It’s for an entirely different reason than those who are engaged in sexual harassment – but when a law firm tells a budding lawyer that if she puts on the hijab (headscarf) she can expect to be fired (as what happened to a student of mine once), or when a school or nursery can demand that employees remove such clothing when they come to work, and so forth, the end result is the same. Society develops a tolerance for treating women without the full autonomy and dignity they deserve – and different groups will then take advantage of that. The harassers will harass – and the business owners will enforce restrictive measures on staff and clientele.

Egypt has gone through a tumultuous three years, since the ouster of then president and dictator, Hosni Mubarak. A great hope of many who stood in Tahrir Square in those early days of the revolution was that a social reformation would also be at hand – that the great explosion of civil-society energies that sustained the square would carry on far beyond it. In that square, men and women were treated with deference and dignity and their individual autonomy and privacy was safeguarded. Those days seem akin to a historical chronicle now, but they do show Egyptians at their best. When a woman is harassed in the street, and the harasser feels free to carry out his crime – or when a woman is told she can’t enter this restaurant, or work in that school, because she wears a headscarf – that’s certainly not Egypt at its best.

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Dr. H.A. Hellyer, non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, the Royal United Services Institute, and the Harvard University Kennedy School, previously held senior posts at Gallup and Warwick University. Follow him on Twitter at @hahellyer.

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