Let’s preface this with something nice: Egypt has a great deal of things to be proud of. It has the pyramids, for one. It has a rich history of song and dance. It has the Al Azhar mosque. It has the Yacoubian building. It has a legion of democracy fighters under its belt and a revolution-in-the-making to its name. It has koshary for crying out loud: a frighteningly robust spicy carbohydrate overload that costs less than a dollar to fill you up.
Indeed there’s plenty to boast about, but despite the country’s past glory several unsightly elements remain–one of the most depressing being the ongoing verbal and physical harassment that women and girls experience on a daily basis. In the streets, no less.
Yes, I’ll admit my perspective is one-sided and highly subjective. I am a woman. I walk the streets of Cairo. Yet, after combining my experience with other first-hand accounts and research/data on the issue, what remains painfully clear is that harassment in Cairo is a given. It is something women and girls, regardless of economic status, can’t escape. The abuse ranges, of course, from slick whispers of “hey sugar,” and “slow down you bitch/whore/slut/insert other misogynistic term here” to grabbing, stalking, ogling, indecent exposure and groping in public. Assault is sometimes part of a man’s arsenal. So is rape. These are things that happen under the cover of night. They are things that happen long after dawn breaks. Assault and harassment can be seen on any given day, even under bright light of a moody Egyptian sun.
Most of the time it’s a one-off affair where words are hissed into your face as you pass an unfamiliar man or boy on the street. Sometimes it comes from the taxi driver who should be focusing on his route but is instead shamelessly staring in the rear view mirror while he fondles his dick through his pants. Sometimes it involves a threesome of young men, so inspired by the sheer volume of their collective testosterone, that they make obscene gestures with their hands and yell at any woman who walks past.
In the rare event it involves a mob and, in that case, heaven help the woman at the heart of it.
When it comes to the age of the perpetrators, there are no limits. Twenty year old students with sisters are perpetrators. Forty year old shopkeepers and businessmen with daughters are perpetrators. Sixty year old cab drivers with granddaughters are perpetrators. Even nine year old boys, children with mothers who should be more concerned with learning long division as opposed to how sedrek 3asal (your breasts are like honey) is used in a sentence, are perpetrators. This isn’t a case of a few bad apples in the bunch–it’s an epidemic.
It is a gender-specific version of the plague that is marring the very fabric of Egyptian society with its insidious nature.
To add insult to injury, it doesn’t matter where you are from, what you look like, how old you are, your level of education or how much/how little you’re covered up. You could wear jeans and a t-shirt. You could wear an abbaya or a niqab. You could sport five heavy-duty garbage bags, if you like, and walk down the street with a man who is 6’6”and 270 pounds of jacked muscle. It doesn’t matter. If you are a woman and you set foot in Cairo for more than 24 hours, you will be harassed. This is a pathetically sad truth I’d be willing to bet a million dollars on.
Because, trust me, I won’t lose.
I won’t lose because statistics show that upwards of 85% of Egyptian women and 98% of foreign women have been exposed to harassment (46.1% of Egyptians and 52.3% of foreigners on a daily basis). I won’t lose because the other day a friend of mine was slapped on the ass by an eight year old boy, and another friend was followed home by a man twice her age. I won’t lose because on the 15 minute walk from the sports club to my house this morning I was verbally harassed only twice. Only twice! While my sarcasm is thinly veiled I have to admit: only twice makes for great day in my books.
Based on the numbers alone the alarm bells should be ringing from the centre of Tahrir Square through Khan-el-Khalili (a notorious marketplace riddled with aggressive peddlers) all the way to the American University in Cairo in the city’s east end. They should be ringing and yet they’re not. Instead there’s a resounding silence that struggles to contain the ever simmering angst, rage and fear of yet another 100,000+ women who have been harassed in this city–and I’m only referring to today.
Yes, there are innovative programmes out there that serve to ease women’s frustration (e.g. the roll out of an excellent SMS messaging system that allows people to report incidences of harassment – Harassmap) but it’s fundamentally not enough. Women still are unable to obtain social justice because, a) there aren’t enough reliable legal, health or social avenues of recourse in place to deal with harassment, and b) harassment and assault are such socially accepted phenomena that even though they have been/are being addressed by some human rights groups, branches of government, women’s activists and international NGOs, it is being ignored, laughed off and swept under the rug almost everywhere else. This is either because women are not worth being treated as equals or we need to lighten up since we missed the memo, as a man once told me.
“Come on, what’s the problem? It’s just a little bit of flirting.”
In the face of such flippancy, combating harassment will require more than the lip service of opening a couple women’s shelters, enshrining additional laws in the penal code and providing training to a handful of civil servants. Stamping out harassment will require years of programming and advocacy that focuses on behavioural change and involve committed action from all segments of society. This means from judges, civil servants, media and law enforcement officials to teachers, doctors, religious leaders and well-respected members of each and every neighbourhood.
So as Egypt moves towards building a new political system and revising its social and economic contracts one can only hope it will also work towards making women’s safety (and empowerment) a reality. The catch is things are messy enough as it is, and if the dominant rhetoric on the street continues to be “one revolution at a time” (with hardliners shouting above the din and being far less diplomatic than that) it’s unlikely the issue will gain enough traction to give activists the space needed to secure additional public support in the fight against a socially-driven malaise that afflicts a nation of sisters, mothers, daughters and friends.
Now if that’s not something worth fighting for, I don’t know what is.
*(Note: check out the superb film Cairo 678 for a realistic depiction of harassment and GBV in EG).