It's Always the Woman's Fault!

Cairo has just played host to the first conference on the sexual harassment of women in the workplace. Nelly Youssef interviewed a Jordanian woman journalist and to the Director General of the Arab Labour Organisation on the issue

In your opinion, what are the reasons for harassment and discrimination against Arab women in the workplace?

Ibrahim Quwaidir: Discrimination against women in the Arabic world can be traced back to cultural and social traditions that are passed on in early childhood.

In addition, the Arabic media display women's bodies in a repugnant manner, thereby contributing greatly to the increasing prevalence of discrimination and harassment against women.

Lana Mamkegh: There are many reasons for the sexual harassment of women. Most importantly, women in the Arabic world are still regarded simply as sex objects; this is a result of outdated traditions and customs, and of a false understanding of religion.

On the one hand, we have sexual violence and harassment; on the other hand, a decline in morals and a lack of role models or authoritative values. Is there a connection?

Quwaidir: Undoubtedly, because this decline in morality has also become widespread in the Arab business world. Bribery and nepotism lead to moral decay. When sexual harassment takes place in the workplace, it's often male bosses who are responsible, for they possess power and authority and are beholden to nobody.

Mamkegh: When this moral decline is combined with uncontrolled power, many of the culprits feel a positive urge to humiliate and insult those who are in a weaker position - and this naturally includes women. In many cases, sexual harassment is actually seen as a legitimate activity.

It comes from an unethical idea of what authority means, and it's also due to the fact that, in Arab society, men feel superior to women.

Is there a link between discrimination against women and the high proportion of unemployed women in the Arab world?

Quwaidir: Yes, certainly. In the Arab world, 48% of women are unemployed - and after they have become victims of sexual harassment, many actually prefer to return to the home.

Some women have the courage to speak out and say that they have been victims of sexual harassment. Why are they often not believed?

Quwaidir: Because in Arabic society, there is still a widespread belief that the woman is always the guilty party, whose scandalous behaviour seduces the man into making sexual advances.

This is why women prefer to keep quiet about their experiences with sexual harassment. When they don't, they risk being ostracised. If the women is married, she's risking divorce; if single, she's jeopardising her chances of finding a husband.

What do you say to people who claim that women incite their own harassment by dressing provocatively? Or to those who demand that women should return to the home, or who advocate segregation according to gender?

Quwaidir: I cannot agree with such views. The fact that a woman goes to work cannot be seen as the cause of her harassment.

Mamkegh: These radical opinions represent a desire to see women pushed back into mediaeval conditions. After all, the victims of harassment also include women who wear the veil.

How, then, can this problem best be solved? Are there approaches from Western societies that might be applied in the Arab world?

Quwaidir: The problem is best approached by educating people, beginning with the youngest, and by revising and reworking educational syllabuses.

The suggestions we've worked out at this conference won't fail to have an effect, because we'll use them to influence the content of the media and the educational system. We shall present our results to the International Labour Organisation in Geneva, and in two years, we'll publish an international directive on the protection of women against sexual harassment. We are also working on laws to prohibit sexual harassment at an Arabic and international level.

Mamkegh: I am against any kind of educational campaign that's directed towards women alone, because we have to educate society as a whole. Conferences like ours are actually more "by women, for women"; only a minuscule number of men took part.

In the West, this whole constellation of problems is regulated by means of laws. We, too, should focus on legal measures. At the same time, though, we should also ponder our own cultural, ethical and religious inheritance, in order to develop laws that can be properly applied.

Interview: Nelly Youssef

Translated from the German by Patrick Lanagan

© 2005

Lana Mamkegh, a scientist from Jordan, works for Jordanian radio and television.

Ibrahim Quwaidir was born in 1947 in the Libyan village of Ghazy. Since 1999, he has been Director General of the Arab Labour Organisation (ALO).

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