By Elizabeth Iskander Monier
Last December, Egyptian academic Mariz Tadros wrote that women’s human security was not on anyone’s agenda. According to her research, the security breakdown since the Arab uprisings has led to a dramatic rise in incidents of sexual harassment due to the sense among perpetrators that, in the absence of law and order, they can get away with anything. Women’s mobility, including their ability to go to work, has been severely curtailed. This is not only true in Egypt. Tadros found that women working night shifts—for example, as doctors and nurses—in the Libyan city of Benghazi could no longer carry out their jobs.
The consequences of this climate of impunity were demonstrated by the harassment of a law student at Cairo University in March. Footage emerged of a student dressed in black trousers and a fitted pink sweater walking across campus while being subjected to verbal abuse by dozens of male students, some of whom appeared to grab at her clothes. She escaped by hiding in a bathroom until security guards escorted her off campus. Anger was provoked when the head of the university, Gaber Nassar, appeared to suggest that the female student’s clothes were inappropriate. Although Nasser denied this was the meaning of his words, media figures also took the line that the victim was to blame because of the way she was dressed.
Although the incident did lead to debate in traditional and social media, it did not inspire a fresh will to address the situation or indeed offer any original perspectives on the issue of women’s rights in Egypt. While there has been a surge in activism on the issue, with the emergence of numerous groups and creative initiatives that monitor harassment cases since 2011, the public debate remains dominated on all sides by the apportionment of blame.
The common response to cases of harassment is often to justify the incident, either by blaming women’s clothing and behavior or by pointing to the difficult social and economic circumstances that cause Egyptians to delay marriage and suffer hardship. However, if the debate is to move on, it should focus less on the possible economic causes and more on the social acceptability of the act itself. When reactions focus on apportioning blame it perpetuates the idea the perpetrator is the victim of circumstances, and that all the potential factors that lead a man to harass a women should be tackled first. The fundamental issue of respect in relations between men and women is overlooked. This leads to a sense of powerlessness in tackling the problem, because it becomes a broad and complex phenomenon rather than simply a crime. The tendency is then to take the easy way out and call for women to cover up even more.
Perhaps this is inevitable in a country where such diverse ideological stances persist as it struggles to find its political identity in the wake of the ouster of former president Hosni Mubarak. So much symbolism is still tied up with a woman’s appearance, as is clear in debates about the hijab and niqab around the world. For many, the appearance of women is intricately linked to the nature of the country; a veiled woman is a signal of the state’s moral and religious character, such as in Saudi Arabia and Iran. In contrast, in Atatürk’s Turkey, removing the veil was linked to progress, although in recent years it has once again been permitted in schools and universities, where it was formerly banned.
The symbolic importance placed on the role and appearance of women is a complicating factor in Egypt’s harassment problem, as are Egypt’s social and economic crises. But the issue can’t wait for an elusive social consensus on the “appropriate” appearance of women, or on the resolution of Egypt’s complex economic challenges. A 2013 survey conducted jointly by the United Nations, Egypt’s Demographic Centre and the National Planning Institute found that more than 99 percent of Egyptian women had experienced some form of sexual harassment. This is surely a fact that is unacceptable to all, regardless of where they fall in the harassment debate.
One way to begin to move the debate along and to restore women’s ability to go about their daily lives is to shift the focus onto the unacceptability of the sexual harassment of women full stop, and less on discussing the various justifications for it. This requires a social and political will to move towards a culture of mutual respect and acceptance between men and women. In a country still wrestling with itself over its future, it is unlikely that this will find itself at the top of a national agenda in the near future.