In Egypt, Many Still Believe Sexual Harassment Is the Woman's Fault

A law is not enough to shake views to the core, but some see encouraging if slow signs of change.

Young women cross the street arm in arm in Talaat Harb Square in downtown Cairo.
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“The purpose of this testimony is to try to answer the question why we continue with our activity despite the weight of the defeat? Why didn’t we surrender? Where do we draw the inspiration and the strength to continue?”

The testimony referred to by Dalia Abdel Hamid, head of the Gender and Women’s Rights Office at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, is a look at the many achievements of Egyptian women since the Arab Spring revolution in 2011. The accepted wisdom maintains that despite the active and exceptional participation of women in the demonstrations that led to the downfall of the regime of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and to a change for the better in their constitutional rights, the attitude towards women on the part of male society has not changed.

Abdel Hamid disagrees. In an article she posted on the Egyptian website Al Mada, which still enjoys relative freedom of expression, she recounts harrowing experiences that ultimately had an impact.

“I remember the second anniversary of the revolution, on January 25, 2013. Ten men tried to break into the building where we were working, in order to catch a woman who had slipped out of their hands. I remember the woman, who climbed to the apartment where we conducted our operations room. She was bleeding and didn’t know what had happened to her. I remember Andrew, one of our volunteers, who refused to continue to sit in the room and insisted on returning to the square despite having been badly beaten on his leg by one of the thugs,” writes Abdel Hamid.

However, this difficult experience, which took place two years after the revolution, also gave rise to a large number of written testimonies. Some of them were used by the courts that discussed the abuse of women, and some were posted on the website Archive of Women’s Voices, which was set up back in 1995.

'In midst of craziness we were making progress'

“We didn’t understand at the time that in the midst of this craziness we were making progress, that those testimonies would turn into the balance of power We didn’t know that the power that lies in the voices of women would breach the walls of the long-term social alienation in relation to assaulting women.”

Nevertheless, she acknowledges that the turning point in the attitude towards women, and particularly towards terms such as “harassment and abuse,” is slow, and there’s still a long way to go to achieve a change.

In June 2014 Egypt’s interim president, Adly Mansour, published the sexual harassment law, the first in Egypt’s history, which until then had made do with a vague law against offending modesty, which didn’t especially help to deter the harassers. This new law did not pass without criticism: Several members of the Egyptian Shura Council accused the women of being responsible for any harm done to them, whether due to their “immodest” dress or their provocative actions.

Up to five years in prison for sexual harassment

The new law is clearer than its predecessor and spells out the nature of sexual harassment, and the punishments are also more significant, ranging from six months to five years in prison plus heavy fines.

“But our great victory should not be reduced only to a change in the law or the promotion of a national strategy for the fight against violence against women, and not even the establishment of a special unit for that purpose in the Interior Ministry,” writes Abdel Hamid.

“The great achievement lies in the removal of the badge of shame from women who complain about assault, in a manner that now enables them to speak about the subject openly, and in the fact that the shame is now attributed to the harassers and attackers.”

It’s true that the subject of sexual harassment in Egypt has become an integral part of the public discussion. Last week the American University in Cairo even held a special conference on the subject.

But several days before the conference cleric Saad Arafat expounded his decisive opinion on the subject: “The woman is a principal partner in sexual harassment, even if she is not the only one responsible. She must dress modestly and walk in the street in a respectable manner. The nature of the modest woman is to avoid attracting attention, to watch her voice (in other words, to be quiet), since the short and tight clothes are one of the reasons for the spread of the phenomenon in the Egyptian street.”

Why men harass

This perception is not limited to the religious viewpoint. The study by Dr. Hani Henry of the American University in Cairo, “Sexual Harassment in the Streets of Egypt — a New Theoretical Approach,” which was published in November 2016, cites five reasons that perpetrators give for sexual harassment, as revealed by interviews with nine men who were involved: harassment strengthens the masculine status; it stems from women’s mistakes; they want it; it’s a punishment that God inflicts on women; harassment is a product of social oppression.

This daring study penetrates the sociological depths of Egyptian society and explains, among other things, the influences of formal education on Egyptian man, along with the traits that typically characterize him. Henry’s study casts doubts on the likelihood that the new legislation will eliminate the phenomenon, or even to turn it into an act that is considered improper.

Proof of that is presented by jurist Dr. Adel Amer, head of the Egyptian Center for Political, Legal and Economic Studies, who in an article he published last week presents instances of attacks against women in recent weeks.

Amer explains that the instances of rape don’t bypass the wealthy classes, and that even doctors, clerics, professors, senior officials and members of the security forces are involved. Apparently the war for awareness is still in its infancy and according to Amer, it is not chalking up achievements, partly because of a lack of publicity and a policy of shame and concealment.