Sexual harassment as disease and political tool in Egypt

crossposted from As of Yet Untitled.
Yesterday in my daily BBC feed I came across six horrifying stories from Egyptian women who experience regular sexual harassment. The psychic effect on women comes through in heart breaking clarity:

I get harassed 100 times a day. I tried everything to stop it but it doesn’t stop. I wear loose clothes, I don’t wear make up, I spend more than an hour in front of the mirror everyday thinking of ways to hide my body.

The stories also point to a wide spread acceptance of harassment among men in Egyptian society:

Another time I was walking home and this guy unzipped his trousers in a car next to me. I screamed, but he shouted back very aggressively, saying ‘Who do you think you are? Why would I even look at you?’ People in the street gathered around us and to my surprise they were not sympathetic with me. They supported him. They all defended the guy because they do the same thing.

Most of the women share their own attempts at coping or resistance strategies, few of which seem to have any affect.

The “See Also” box pointed me to Egypt’s sexual harassment ‘cancer’ which explains that sexual harassment is not considered a crime in Egypt. It cites a study that showed a complete absence among Egyptian women to a “belief in their entitlement to personal safety and freedom of movement.” It also reiterates that witnesses of harassment are much more likely to side with the aggressor rather then the victim.

After one high profile story of harassment and an apathetic response was published in a newspaper, the editor shared his theory of the roots of pervasive harassment:

…editor-in-chief Muhammad El Sayyed Said wrote that the behaviour of the crowd was characteristic of oppressed societies, where the majority identified with the oppressor. He blamed the increase in sexual harassment on what he said were “three decades of incitement against women” from the pulpits of some of Egypt’s mosques.

The link between sexual harassment and the political situation is reinforced by this article from 2005 about supporters of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak groping female activists and reporters on the day of an important referendum:

Police and security forces reportedly stood around as plain clothed men attacked the women, some shouting orders during the assaults.

“They didn’t do anything to stop it. They pushed the guys around the women, they tore their clothes apart, they were completely naked in the streets,” one woman at Wednesday’s demonstration told the BBC.

So where is the hope amidst all this horror? It is that women in Egypt are working for change. They are not simply passive victims. This BBC feature from March profiles two women who are part of that movement. The article quotes human and women’s rights activist Dalia Ziada (see her blog here):

The road to real democracy, Dalia believes, lies through women’s rights.
“Validate women and you validate the whole society.”

What does all this mean for us? It would be easy to shrug our shoulders and dismiss it as a problem way over there. But as a Mennonite I know that I’m only a generation removed from churches where women were told to cover their bodies so as not to tempt men. My mother was told that serving as Sunday school superintendent was too lofty a post for a woman (God forbid she have authority over a male Sunday school teacher). I as a man in the Mennonite community still benefit from the privileges built into the foundations of the Mennonite church. Throughout my life, my gifts in traditionally male areas (i.e. speaking and leadership) were more likely to be affirmed and called out then those of my female peers.

We’d like to convince ourselves that Mennonite teachings on gender are gentler and softer then those in Egypt. We would never condone open sexual harassment of women on the streets of Lancaster or Goshen. But the reality is that our tapestry of male domination is woven with the same threads of tradition, rationalization and scriptural manipulation. Our curtain may be a bit more translucent then theirs, but the warp and the weft are the same.

Comment (1)

  1. carl

    Wow, Tim. Another great post. You’re on a roll…

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