Scared to walk the streets at night in America? A 2008 survey showed that 83% of Egyptian women and 98% of foreign women have been sexually harassed in Egypt (Zaffar 2011; Rogers 2011). This astonishingly high number shows a disturbing and prevailing culture within the state, where women are constantly abused day and night—in alleys and in broad streets. Male drivers pretend to run a woman over to ‘flirt’ with her, stopping at the last second. Men approach a strange woman in the street and grope her breast. Sexual harassment is an accepted and common social practice. Fighting back, however, is almost unheard of, and typically shocks the aggressor. For instance, when a man came up to Mary Rogers, an international reporter for CNN, and touched her breast, she immediately punched and swore at him. Surprisingly her behavior did not incite more violence. Instead, her confident response incited this broken repetition from her attacker: ‘“I’m sorry, I’m sorry”’ (Rogers 2011).
How has this culture of public abuse and disrespect to women evolved to the point where men are shocked to realize that their harassment is unacceptable? Some blame it on the spread of conservative Islam over the past few decades (Rogers 2011). Strict, traditional interpretations of a woman’s role have created an environment where it is dangerous for women to walk in public. Yet, studies show that over two-thirds of the women who reported that they had been sexually harassed wore traditional Muslim headscarves or robes (Drogin 2011). Women in full burkas are seemingly as likely to be harassed as women who wear Western clothes (Drogin 2011). So while Islamic roles for women may be a contributing factor, it does not seem to be the women’s actions or rejection of those fundamental teaching which ‘provoke’ the abuse. Others blame it on Mubarak’s dictatorship and the political unrest that ‘diverts’ attention away from social issues, such as gender equality, to political stability (Rogers 2011). Or the degree of sexual harassment may be a by-product of Egypt’s recent reliance on oil and its wealth, which has fundamentally changed Egyptian culture, and its former views of women.
Whatever the root cause of high harassment levels on the streets of Egypt may be, the culture of public abuse is threatening the physical security of Egyptian women and foreign women traveling to the country. As Nehad Abul Komsan, the leader of Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights stated, ‘“There is increasing violence against women in our society’” (Drogin 2011). The US State Department agrees with this assessment, warning travelers that women, particularly women unaccompanied by males, are “vulnerable to sexual harassment and verbal abuse,” due to the “…increasing reports over the last several months of foreigners being sexually groped in taxis and in public places” (Drogin 2011). Women face a real and present danger every time they go out in Egypt’s streets.
Yet culture is not immutable. Recent circumstances indicate that women’s security might improve in the upcoming regime. Overall, there were low levels of reported harassment during the recent revolution. Women and men came out in almost equal numbers during the beginning of the protests, working together towards one common goal. Many felt empowered by the recent events. One woman, when verbally harassed by a police officer, got out of her car and slapped him. She said that she would “never have been able to do that before the revolution,” but the revolution gave her the courage to stand up for herself (Davies 2011). Some who work with women’s rights organizations in Egypt have stated that they believe the formation of a free society will encourage open discussion about gender oppression. A new, democratic regime would therefore reduce the violence against women in the public streets (Davies 2011).
Unfortunately a revolution, as Nehad Abul Komsoan said, “doesn’t end all our problems” (Drogin 2011). She believes the decrease in sexual harassment in Egypt was a temporary respite, at best. She may be right. Instances of violence against women may have been severely underreported during the revolution. There is at least one account of a young woman who was groped violently by several men during a protest. The crowd’s response to her screams was to tell her to be silent, shushing her with the command ‘“[d]on’t tarnish the revolution. Don’t make a scene… We are men. We’re sorry. Just go now'” (Drogin 2011).
There are other signs that indicate that the revolution will not improve women’s physical securities or rights in Egypt. Despite women’s almost equal participation in the revolution (some say 50% of the protesters were women), no women were picked by the military to sit on the ten-member Constitutional Reform Committed. Few women were selected to participate in other high-ranking cabinets reorganizing the government (Zaffar 2011). Despite women’s attempts to assist in developing the new political system, they have been systematically cut off at every turn.
To change Egypt’s cultural practices, women will have to continue to scream, to protest, to speak up. Otherwise, they will be ordered to be silent, to give up their rights for political stability, just as they were in the previous regime, and just as the young woman was during the protest. Egyptian women have been told to sacrifice their rights repeatedly throughout the last decades—both in the legislature and on the streets. Yet in this revolution it is not only Egyptian women’s liberty at stake, but their physical security and voice as well.
Davies, Catriona. 2011. Revolution signals new dawn for Egypt’s women. CNN. February 24.http://articles.cnn.com/2011-02-24/world/egypt.women.optimism.harassment_1_sexual-harassment-lara-logan-egyptian-women?_s=PM:WORLD (accessed March 2, 2011).
Drogin, Bob. 2011. Egypt’s women face growing sexual harassment. Los Angeles Times. February 23.http://articles.latimes.com/2011/feb/23/world/la-fg-egypt-women-abuse-20110223 (accessed February 26, 2011).
Owen, Margaret. 2011. Egypt: From equality of purpose to equality on the ground. openDemocracy. March 1.http://www.opendemocracy.net/5050/margaret-owen/egypt-from-equality-of-purpose-to-equality-on-ground(accessed March 3, 2011).
Rogers, Mary. 2011. Egypt’s harassed women need their own revolution. CNN. February 17.http://www.cnn.com/2011/OPINION/02/16/rogers.egypt.sexual.harrassment/index.html?hpt=T2 (accessed February 23, 2011).
Zaffar, Ehsan. 2011. The revolution isn’t over for the women of Tahrir Square. Huffington Post. February 28.http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ehsan-zaffar/the-revolution-isnt-over-_b_828651.html (accessed March 1, 2011).