Friday, October 24, 2008

An Egyptian First

My friend Lauren emailed me a link to a very interesting newspaper article this morning. Let me summarize:

In June 2007, in Cairo, a 28-year-old boy in a man's body (Sharif Gomaa) pulled his van alongside a 27-year-old woman (Noha Rushdie Saleh), reached out of his window, grabbed her breast, and pulled her toward his van. She pushed him away, falling down in the process. Gomaa then attempted to pull away, but--thank heaven for Cairo traffic--was unable to do so because another driver cut him off. Noha then did the unthinkable: she stood on the hood of Gomaa's vehicle to prevent him from getting away, and she asked passersby for help. They refused her. One woman even told Noha to "look at what [she was] wearing" because she wasn't wearing hijab. Noha was undeterred. She and a friend dragged Gomaa to a nearby police station . . . where the police initially refused to do anything. Eventually Noha herself drove a police officer and Gomaa to the main police station. Finally, over a year later, earlier this week, Gomaa was sentenced to three years in prison with hard labor. It's the first time in Egyptian history that a man has been sentenced for sexual harassment.

My initial reaction: Noha, you are one brave woman, and I respect you very much. Good for you, for not backing down, for demanding justice in a situation where everything about your history must have been telling you that you wouldn't get it. I am impressed.

Sexual harassment is not at all uncommon here in Egypt. Female tourists are advised to wear a wedding band, even if they aren't married, and that helps curb the harassment some, but it doesn't eliminate it. According to the news article, 83% of Egyptian women say that they have been harassed. Only 3% report it, because nothing will be done . . . there isn't even a specific law in Egypt banning sexual harassment. The common response is to blame the victim. She wasn't dressed modestly; she was asking for it. As if men are so weak that they have no control over their actions; a woman wearing loose long sleeves and loose long pants is just so alluring that they can't help themselves. Puh-lease. If you believe that, there's a bridge I'd like to sell you.

And it isn't even always the case that the victims aren't dressed modestly, even according to the Muslim definition. During the Eid (holiday) after Ramadan this year, a mob of around 100 youths attacked female pedestrians, I believe in Mohandiseen, a Cairo neighborhood. More details here and here. The same thing happened during the same Eid in 2006. The attackers ripped at the women's clothes, tearing them off. The women were wearing hijab. One even was wearing niqab, which covers the face as well as the hair. The attackers tried to tear it off. Now I understand why we foreigners are advised not to go out walking during the Eid. I'm not sure why it is that the end of a religious celebration--Ramadan--is marked by this kind of sexual violence, but it's a pattern and therefore should be recognized. On the positive side, this incident also pointed out some improvements in government response. Although no police officers were present when the mob began the attack, the police arrived quickly and put an end to it. Eight people were arrested. They went before a judge earlier this month, but I haven't seen any reports of the outcome.

The harassment usually is not violent like it was in these incidents. I know of one embassy wife who received a hard slap on the behind from some punk on a motorcycle, but most of the harassment is verbal. There will be catcalls or rude suggestions yelled at women. Women have been cautioned not to ever sit in the front of a taxi with the driver--some drivers assume that means you're sexually available, and they get free with their hands. There's also some inappropriate touching on the streets. (I've been told if that ever happens to me, it's perfectly acceptable for me to start yelling and screaming and berating whoever did it, as long as I don't curse or hit them. I'm not sure what my actual response would be; I haven't had to find out.)

I personally have experienced very little harassment. I'm pretty sure I've heard a few rude suggestions or comments, but since my Arabic is very limited, I didn't understand them, which is fine by me. There are some phrases I'd just as soon not learn. I had a cab driver yesterday yell at me out the window, as he pulled off to the side of the road to offer me a ride, "bee-yoo-ti-ful!" I scowled at him and kept walking. Even if I had wanted a ride, I wouldn't have gotten into his taxi. I had another taxi driver the other day who was marginal; in America, he would have been someone who just bungled a pick-up attempt, but here, he was bordering on rude, at the minimum. He kept staring in his mirror and telling me how good and beautiful American women are. So I responded by telling him how good and beautiful and smart and strong Egyptian women are. He said "No, they are not!" I told him he was wrong and got out of the cab. I pretended not to notice when he tried to give me his mobile number so I could call him when I needed a taxi. I just handed him my LE5 through the window and walked away.

So there you have it. Most, if not all, women in Cairo will experience some form of harassment at some point in time. Most of it is verbal; some involves physical touching. In rare cases, there will be violence. It's one of the trade-offs to living in Egypt, a trade-off that shouldn't have to be made, but that remains nonetheless. On the one hand, we Western women get to experience a totally different culture, visit some amazing archeological sites, and meet some incredible people. On the other hand, we have to put up with some offensive and shocking behavior. I would love to know how Egyptian women think about it--the ones who have been harassed, and the ones who haven't. Do most blame the victim, or is that a minority opinion among women? Do they view it as a normal part of life to be accepted, or does it anger them like it does Western women? And what do the majority of Egyptian men think--do they blame the victim or do they recognize that men are responsible for their own behavior? When their wife or daughter is the victim, who do they blame?

There are forces at work within Egypt to enhance women's legal and social standing and to decrease harassment, and progress is being made, as shown by the improved response to this year's Eid violence. Here's hoping the situation continues to improve.

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